How Bruce Lee has influenced black culture

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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?

In a certain sense, Lee’s personal struggles and professional development mirrored those of many black men who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, with the searing struggle for Civil Rights still poignant in the minds of Americans.

At that particular juncture in Hollywood’s history, minorities of all races were persona non-grata on the Silver Screen. This appeared to fuel Lee’s determination even more, as popular appreciation for Kung-Fu movies steadily grew alongside the mushrooming of black-made films. At the same time most young American boys identified with rough-hewn icons like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, young blacks could take succor in the personification of machismo as embodied by Blaxploitation actors…and a decidedly cool, Karate-chopping Asian that eventually became synonymous with martial arts.

Another fascinating bit of Bruce Lee’s lore may help to explain the affinity blacks have for the Chinese immigrant. His first student in the martial arts was in fact a young black man named Jesse Glover, who passed away a few short weeks ago and long outlived his instructor. With his fluid style of fighting, Lee is credited as being the progenitor of mixed martial arts (MMA) – whose bloody, anything-goes form of combat features several dominant black fighters (who themselves would probably cite Lee as an influence).

To a certain extent, martial arts have over the years become a desideratum of black masculinity. In the post-Bruce Lee era, it became increasingly common for black action heroes like Michael Jai-White and Wesley Snipes to karate chop their way across the screen. Arguably, that factor can be traced back to the fact that martial arts and the growing Black Power movement of the 1970s – with all its militarism and “Don’t take mess from nobody” brio – began their cultural ascent at the same time. Although the two are not a perfect comparison, the philosophies Kung-Fu and Black Nationalism had, at their core, a strong sense of discipline and placed an emphasis on physical prowess. Individuals who would like to learn other forms of martial arts may take some classes at a Jiu-Jitsu Academy.

To be sure, martial artists like Bruce Lee were serene unless provoked; meanwhile, the hair-trigger tempers of most ‘Black Power’ figures often led to violent confrontations with the establishment. Yet both movements, and the movie genres they spawned, had an ethos that disaffected young blacks found appealing: Kung-Fu and Black Nationalism offered the ability to intimidate and take control of potentially deadly circumstances.

The Bruce Lee brand commands an estimated $5-$10 million annually, relatively small change when compared to Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, yet still prodigious for an actor who barely made it beyond 30 and whose global reach didn’t take hold until after he died. So did Bruce Lee, in his relatively short 32 years of life, change the world? A bit hyperbolic perhaps, but the martial arts master certainly had a powerful hand in shaping modern-day black culture. Ironically enough, one of black America’s brightest and most influential icons is a man of Chinese descent.