How Kung Fu Cinema Inspired a Generation of Fighters AKA Why so many Black People Love Kung Fu

Woman doing a high kick in martial arts class

Posted On May 1, 2021

Last summer I had my first dream in Japanese. I wasn’t doing anything special but I remember it so vividly because it was a dream about my old karate dojo back in Tochigi. I can recall hearing my sensei’s heavy Japanese accents as they instructed me on how to better improve my form. Although they’ll be disappointed to learn I haven’t joined another dojo since leaving Tochigi but I’ve managed to keep my love of martial arts alive through movies. Foreign films don’t often make it in America but martial arts movies seem to have created a long-standing fanbase in the American market especially among the Black community. From the entire Blaxploitation genre to Wu-Tang’s heavy use of kung fu motifs in their artistry, why has this particular genre of cinema opened a clear pathway for intercultural resonance?

East Meets Black Culture

Martial arts films have been around since the 1920s. The earliest films were adapted from Chinese novels that were integrated with swordplay and wirework. During the 1950s, martial arts films saw a large boom of success with the Shaw Brothers Studio. They produced some of the greatest martial arts films of the genres and helped launch the careers of many Hong Kong producers and creatives. Although their films were largely produced for an Asian audience they garnered an international audience through Golden Harvest Studio where they produced Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee —a pinnacle turning point for intercultural cinema. 

In the years following the end of the Civil Rights era, the rise of Blaxploitation films began to appear on the screen. These films gave Black people the agency to tell their own stories without incorporating the “White savior” as the hero. Instead, the movies centered on White society as the background sometimes even the enemy. Akin to Blaxploitation films, martial arts films often didn’t shy away from naming white imperialism as the enemy. Monikers such as “white devils” or “foreign devils” are often recurring phrases as the Asian heroes defeat the western invaders. These foreign invaders are hard at work taking land, furthering their business ventures, and blatantly disrespecting the local culture—sound familiar? 

Combining martial arts action, spy film elements, and themes of the emerging Blaxploitation genre Enter the Dragon has become one of the most influential films in cinematic history. Its success contributed to a worldwide interest in martial arts and helped solidify the genre as a staple of Black culture.

Real Life Martial Artist  

Martial arts has had a profound effect outside of art. Coming from Detroit, Michigan taekwondo champion and Japan resident, Chuck Johnson found success at only age 17 years old. Although taekwondo is the base, he also has training in karate, wing-chung, Caporeia, and many others. After spending a few years in Korea to learn from a taekwondo master, Chuck found himself in Japan where he eventually opened his own actor’s training academy in Tokyo. “I started off watching martial arts movies on VHS as a kid. I’d rewind the scenes and practice the moves until I got them right.” Johnson explains. “Then when I was 12 my best friend who was Korean at the time invited me to a taekwondo class. Since I had been practicing and stretching at home all this time when I started classes it seemed like a natural fit for me.”

For a long time history hasn’t afforded Black people the opportunity for economic and social mobility. Black Codes— a series of laws created against African Americans in Union and Non-Union states often prevented Blacks from owning homes or attending schools in White areas or even voting. Despite the moniker “separate but equal” many of these schools and neighborhoods were not equal. They were often underfunded and lacked the resources for upper education. “For a long time, academics weren’t an option for Black people as a way to get anywhere,” Johnson comments on the popularity of martial arts. “It’s changing now but for a long time, it seemed like music and sports were the only way out. Many of those films were akin to a lot of hardships Black people face. If you come from a hard background, martial arts seemed like a way to overcome that.”

With several championships under his belt, Johnson decided to travel to Korea to pursue training in hopes of becoming an Olympic champion. Although finances didn’t allow Johnson to rise to Olympic levels of competition, he managed to find his own place within Japan earning a reputation as a stuntman and professional trainer for actors. A feat that can seem virtually impossible without the proper connections and finances—especially as a Black man. He goes on to explain, “Black people up until recent times didn’t have a lot of capital or connections that allowed us to think big. So when starting as a business as a Black man you’re likely starting in a position where people don’t see you as credible.” Black entrepreneurs are growing daily despite the challenges they face. In a 2019 survey,  80% of Black business owners reported facing challenges getting their business off the ground related to their race including access to capital, being denied loans, and general racism. Despite the obvious challenges ahead Johnson was able to turn those disadvantages into advantages, “Some Japanese people have negative perceptions about Black people, but for the most part, we’re a huge question mark to them. So I think that allows us as business owners and entrepreneurs to shape their perception of how they see Black people. It’s a lot of pressure of course because you have to get everything right the first time but I think we have a unique opportunity because of that.”

Even in 2021, the love the Black community feels towards martial arts and Asian culture is still growing strong. In the wake of political correctness and cultural sensitivity we have to ask ourselves is latching on to these themes considered cultural appropriation? “There’s a little bit of cultural appropriation, but I think it’s just people’s way of paying homage to cultures that inspire us.” Johnson goes on to explain, “It’s fine if you take the time to understand what those symbols mean, but if you never bother to learn then it’s not quite as cool.”

Interested in learning more about Chuck Johnson? You can find him at, on Instagram, and through his YouTube Channel.

Written by Jamila Brown

Jamila Brown is a five-year resident of Japan, teaching in the day and writing at night. She enjoys movies, reading, cosplaying, and eating good food in her downtime.

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