Super Fly and the American Dream: Performing Asian Martial Arts in Blaxploitation Cinema

Curator's Note

The performance of Asian martial arts in the blaxploitation films of the seventies is typically constructed as a means to fight crime and corruption in the black community. In films such as Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), the main characters use martial arts to protect “the black community” from those who seek to destroy and/or control it. While “good” verses “bad” is clearly defined in these films, Super Fly (1972) takes the perspective of the criminal occupying post-civil rights urban spaces in America. Instead of the narrative focusing on the activist whose purpose is for the greater good of “the community,” the film centers on a low-level drug dealer who is stuck in “the life” but is desperately trying to get out -- all the while being held back by those who benefit from him being there. Youngblood Priest sells and uses drugs, but he strives for the real American dream, to be free. Priest, out for his own liberation, is a flamboyantly dressed, street hustler strategically planning and fighting for his civil rights. This is quite provocative in that his character simultaneously breaks and reinforces stereotypes of black criminality. The performance of Asian culture, although there are no Asian characters in the film, adds to the complexity of his character.  His decision to study and later use marital arts against his white oppressor adds an interesting layer to the representation of the black hustler in film. What exactly is the hustler identifying with in his performance of martial arts? Why doesn't his view of liberation match those that strive to better the community?


What I think is particularly interesting about the clip you chose (and specifically the ending fight) is that martial arts only factor into the scene a little. We do get instances of Asian martial arts, such as blocking punches, but it seems that many of the moves are reminiscent of straight up street brawls. What this suggests to me (and to attempt to answer one of your questions), is that the invocation of Asian martial arts (perhaps the most obvious signifier of Asian culture in America, at least in the 1970s) is to identify with a subaltern culture. At the very least, I think it is safe to say that blaxploitation cinema's fixation on martial arts can be attributed in some small part to a desire to represent its characters as members of a minority community; the source of the representation is immaterial so long as it is non-white. Additionally, I wonder how big of a role the fact that Hong Kong martial arts flicks played side-by-side with blaxploitation films in urban theaters had in the adoption of an interest in Asian martial arts.

Thank you so much for your comment on my post. I think it is safe to say that Priest's combined use of martial arts and street fighting is the result of his status as a relatively inexperienced student of the craft. One could also argue that there is a need to adapt this aspect of Asian culture to the streets of America -- making it one's own. But, I also agree with you that the emergence of Kung Fu Cinema had an influence on martial arts appearing in blaxploitation films -- some scholars have noted this connection. The connection with martial arts, many contend, has to do with identifying with the struggles of Chinese people, stars like Bruce Lee and martial arts as a discipline.

Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, 1974) seems to echo especially loudly with your claims here. In the film, a karate school is the locus for the conflict between Jones and "the mob" (the nominal villains). The film is quite bad, but the gentrification subplot is interesting, considering both the ongoing effects of Robert Moses' slum clearance and the marginalized role of blaxploitation cinema in exploitation programming.

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