Nigga Fu: The Last Dragon, Black Masculinity, and Chinese Martial Arts.

This excerpt is taken from Hip-Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City (NYU Press) by Shanté Paradigm Smalls.

The Last Dragon narrates the journey of a young Black Harlem martial arts practitioner, Leroy Green (Taimak Guarriello), who has reached the end of his training with his teacher (Thomas Ikeda). Leroy must venture into the wider world (other parts of Manhattan) to attain his last stage of actualization—the Glow (the culmination of the pupil’s “dragon” training). During his search, Leroy finds a love interest in a local club celebrity, Laura Charles (Vanity), and encounters two raffishly, comically wicked bad guys—a bullying martial arts tough guy–for-hire named Sho’Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III), and Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), an impish arcade czar. The feel-good narrative ends with Leroy defeating the bad guys, winning the heart of the successful, worldly woman, and cementing his reputation as a local hero. 

Although The Last Dragon ends in a typical, formulaic heterosexual romance, the film resists heteronormativity. Instead it provides us with a queerly virginal hero who is able to navigate martial arts masculinity and Orientalist feminization in order to offer a new model of Black masculinity that contradicts and contrasts with that of hip hop film protagonists. Leroy is immersed in the imaginary martial worlds of places like Hong Kong or Foshan, even though his material world is defined by Harlem hip hop dance, slang, and fashion. Leroy’s embodiment as an odd—queer—figure, a Black man obsessed with martial arts culture, materializes the experience of Black and brown youth at the time. The twist is that his lack of worldliness and sexual prowess, rather than his martial arts obsession, is what queers his Black masculine performance. 

The opening scene of The Last Dragon unfolds like many films from Shaw Studios and Golden Harvest, the two preeminent Hong Kong martial arts film studios in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like the opening sequence of the Hong Kong print of its genealogical, aesthetic, and nominative forebear Enter the Dragon (1973), The Last Dragon commences with a musical martial arts montage.12 The viewer is treated to Leroy Green—a young, sweating, brown-skinned, wavy-haired, muscular man—practicing his martial arts forms. There are three quick shots of him—frontal, profile, and back to a frontal shot. It reads as a riff on a mug shot. Rather than ending on the profile shot, the camera reorients the viewer, interrupting the overdetermined idea of the young muscular Black man as a criminal. 

Shanté Paradigm Smalls.

Leroy begins with a bow before cycling through punching and kicking poses, flips, and pectoral flexes. His topless torso is awash with perspiration. It’s clear from his precise, fluid movements that he’s no novice. Leroy performs a final front kick—his right thigh touching his chest and his foot coming above his head. During his routine, we’re privy to shots of his white kung fu pants clinging to his firm, round posterior. 

The camera jump cuts from more flowing movements to Leroy flexing his chest and arm muscles. He’s in a contemporary industrial interior setting, complete with plywood floors and brick walls. The viewer’s expectations of a martial arts training sequence are interrupted by the prolonged, delightful display of the Black male physique moving in rhythm with the musical accompaniment. 

Leroy’s punches are thrown to music, his forearm flexes are on the downbeat, and he sometimes gestures in cosmetic ways that have no discernible practice or fighting efficacy. This display of the body and of martial arts is aligned with grace, beauty, flexibility, improvisation, and femininity, as well as with power, force, precision, mastery, and masculinity. In the 20 seconds between Leroy Green bowing to his absent sifu, or master, and doing a spinning back jump kick, it’s almost impossible to read this as only a martial arts story. 

As the opening credits appear and the title song, “The Last Dragon,” by Dwight David, begins, Leroy’s movements become increasingly recognizable, though not less fluid, as fighting moves: he kicks, he punches, he lets out an audible yell, he performs manly push-ups. One might imagine a bit of relief coming from a typical martial arts film viewer seeing this for the first time: “Ahh, phew! This is about martial arts. I was scared there for a minute.” Scared of what, one might ask? That the film would fail to reaffirm the masculinized artistry of martial arts and the Black martial arts body, as well as that body’s violent potential. The fear/relief dyad frames the way Leroy is characterized throughout the film as non-macho and as possessing untrustworthy or alien masculinity. 

Leroy is a Black Orientalist construction. As Asian American and African American studies scholar Helen Heran Jun argues, “black Orientalism encompasses a range of black imaginings of Asia that are in fact negotiations with the limits, failure, and disappointments of black citizenship.” 

Ironically, Leroy confounds US racial categories and logic precisely because his characterization as a Black-Chinese hybrid places him outside of strict Manichean categories of racial taste, behavior, and aesthetics. Leroy is racialized as a Black man inside of a Black family, yet his performance of blackness is wholly informed by Chinese martial arts film and culture. Chinese popular culture is the genealogy of his particular blackness—an Afro-Asian hybrid masculinity. 

In the preceding chapter on Martin Wong, I explored how the visual artist expressed the connections between Black and Asian masculinities in his paintings of Black and brown men of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods; here, Leroy Green’s character internalizes and embodies an exaggerated and naïve vision of a Black Asian man. 

Leilani Nishime’s work on multiracial Asianness is useful for thinking through Leroy’s racial characterization in The Last Dragon. In one set of arguments, Nishime rethinks the political and material possibilities and limitations of visibility politics as they apply to race. Nishime argues, “We can not . . . learn or wish away the visuality of race. To literally not see agreed-upon markers of racial difference would mean that one did not learn to see the world in a socially meaningful way.” 

Leroy’s self-image and self-stylization is not contingent on already established categories of racialization; in fact, he more closely aligns with another of Nishime’s insights in which she follows Michele Elam’s work on Black-white mixed-race representations in media in asserting “[a]esthetic forms can indicate the everyday and emergent expressions of cultural meaning before they coalesce into empirically measurable phenomena.” At the level of martial arts aesthetics and The Last Dragon’s own pastiche aesthetics mixing funk, disco, hip hop, martial arts, and New York City 1980s fashion, Leroy’s Afro-Asian presentation is a rational experiment in the context of 1980s New York City.

The film consistently plays with and reminds the audience of its multiple aesthetic and generic legacies. For instance, the aforementioned opening scene also highlights the intersection and comingling of Blaxploitation and martial arts film cultures. African American studies scholar and historian Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, following David Desser, notes that Chinese martial arts films, like Blaxploitation films, were popular with Black audiences as they “were the only films [shown in the US] with nonwhite heroes and heroines . . . and they featured ‘an underdog of color,’ often fighting against the colonist enemies, white culture, or the Japanese.” 

Another factor in their popularity among Black audiences is that Blaxploitation and martial arts films were shown in the same theaters, often as double features. Whereas Cha-Jua performs a Pan-Africanist and Black nationalist reading of the intermingling of Black-Asian cultures, in this chapter I show how Leroy Green offers an alternative model for Black racial formation, queer heterosexual Black masculinity, and a hybrid cultural identity. He and the film serve as an example of the popularity of Chinese martial arts films in US Black communities.

Though The Last Dragon was part of a wider trend of martial arts fetish in Hollywood films including early hip hop films, it differed from films like Breakin’ (1984) and Beat Street (1984), which were only peppered with visual cues of a martial arts and hip hop arts relationship. The Last Dragon centers the martial arts and martial arts identity of the protagonist in a multiracial New York City context. It also differed from an independent Black martial arts film centered in New York City’s Lower East Side, The Deadly Art of Survival (1978), by featuring a protagonist who demonstrates counternormative forms of Black masculinity, rather than the more normative modes of Black masculinity of 1970s Blaxploitation films.

The Last Dragon’s politics are localized even as certain characters and relationships may hint at macro-allegories such as enduring East Asian conflict (Leroy/Sho’nuff), US interventionism (Eddie Arkadian), and diasporic racial identities (Yi Brothers). There are myriad vectors that shift when place, space, and context are reframed. Leroy Green offers alternatives to hegemonic heterosexual patriarchal masculinity, inflexible and rigid ideas of Black masculinity, and demasculinized and Orientalist notions of Asian masculinity. Concurrently, he is able to embody a masculinity that embraces and celebrates qualities that have been traditionally socialized as feminine. Leroy, who “fails” at a particular form of idealized Black masculinity, concurrently “succeeds” in forging an alternative Black masculinity that takes its aesthetic, philosophical, and social cues from a fantasized Chinese martial arts identity…

The Last Dragon is cinematic, so its conventions like staging, audience, environment, scripting, direction, intimacy, and blocking are all different from theatrical ones. In cinema, the camera (and lighting and score) is the main orienting and framing device, while in theater the physicality of the actors often determines the focus of the viewers’ eyes and attention. Still, Roberts’s observations on Machos invigorates my thinking about the relationship between masculinity, queerness, and race in The Last Dragon. While Machos queers cisgender-heterosexual Latinx masculinity by disrupting gender-sex norms through gender drag, The Last Dragon explores racial drag through camp, kitsch, and stereotype. 

Here, I’d like to focus on kitsch and camp as they signal a lack of seriousness, value, and masculinity. Kitsch is associated with inauthentic, cheap, gimmicky, low/pop culture, with imitation, gaudy, tasteless “art”: think shot glasses from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, or a T-shirt with President Obama as Che Guevara (something I actually purchased in Beijing). I’m invoking multiple meanings of Black and kitsch: first, there is cinema studies scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara’s discussion of Donald John Consentiono’s neologism “Afrokitsch” or, as Diawara writes it, “afro-kitsch,” which he describes as ambivalent and multidirectional. In a terse, pithy essay, Diawara concludes that films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), a 1965 Radio Mali performance of Junior Wells and His All-Star Band, US R&B of the 1960s, and political figures like Malcolm X and Angela Davis exemplify Pan-African modalities of the “kitsch of blackness,” which he describes as “zones of ambivalence [of] identity formation, sexual politics, and hybridization [as a series of]… postmodern subjects of blackness [that] attempt to prevent [blackness] from falling into the same essentialist trap as whiteness.” 

This bizarre, ahistorical ending, in which US Black art is somehow paralleled with an unspecified whiteness, does not quite derail from Diawara’s more cogent points: blackness reorganizes relationships to categories and categorization, including with itself. As Tavia Nyong’o told me when I queried him about the difference between racist kitsch and racial kitsch in his stellar essay, “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Nyong’o envisioned racial kitsch as “holding open a space to appropriate racist kitsch.” 

The appropriation and redeployment of racist, as well as misogynist and queer- and trans-antagonistic kitsch, is part of the strategic messiness of Black and queer and hip hop performance. These redeployments do not emerge neatly or without gaps, remainders, and critiqueable claims, yet they provide space and form to modes of being and expressivity which complicate the misshapen violence that racist (and/or misogynist and/ or queer/trans-antagonist) claims seek to make. These Black/Afro kitsch performances mark rebellious, unsanctioned blackness that speak or act or appear with interrogative flamboyancy. And though The Last Dragon predates “post-blackness” as a hermeneutic and artistic movement, as an art object it takes up the challenge of queering Black images as it redeploys them through kitsch and camp.

Shanté Paradigm Smalls is Associate Professor of Black Studies in the Department of English and Faculty in Critical Race & Ethnic Studies at St. John’s University.


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