If any doubt exists about how lasting the connection is between Bruce Lee and impressionable young black men, you would need to look no further than the 1980s cult classic The Last Dragon (which full disclosure compels me to mention I’ve seen at least four times).
Kung-Fu aficionados know that both the movie’s title and central character were an homage to the late martial arts legend, and showed the powerful nexus between black culture and the philosophy of martial arts. The 1985 vehicle that helped launch the acting careers of martial-artist Taimak and pin-up vixen Vanity was a hilarious send-up of martial arts movies popularized by Lee, which themselves became the sine qua non of many rambunctious, testosterone-fueled teenagers – many of them black.
I Am Bruce Lee, the new documentary of Lee’s influence on popular culture, is unlikely to be as light-hearted as The Last Dragon, or perform as briskly at the box office. Still, the enduring interest in Lee as an icon underscores how pervasively his physicality and spirit have helped mold black popular culture. Even today, that influence suffuses rap music and African-American cinema. Remnants of Lee’s influence are seen through many of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody action flicks, many of which often see brisk business from black moviegoers and feature major African-American actors.
In ways large and small, a wiry, muscular son of Chinese immigrants has placed his stamp on major strands of the black cultural tapestry. Lee’s hold on the collective imagination of black men is second only to Al Pacino’s immortal turn as “Scarface.” The most prominent exponent of this phenomenon, of course, are those monks from Shaolin (an actual sub-section of New York City, in case you didn’t know), better known as the Wu Tang Clan. How to explain the way in which Lee came to inspire legions of black teenagers, thus helping to cement Kung Fu’s unchallenged mythology in modern-day hip-hop?