Earlier this week, Run Run Shaw, co-founder of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studios, died at the age of 106. Shaw Brothers was responsible for some of the greatest kung fu movies of all time, and introduced the genre to American audiences in the 1970s with their film Five Fingers of Death. In my new book, Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture, I discuss the impact of Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, and kung fu movies in the essay “To Be Chinese, Or Not To Be.” Here is an excerpt:
I was first introduced to martial arts and kung fu movies during the initial wave of releases in 1970s, which first sparked my curiosity. Though my mother was liberal in her parental guidance practices when it came to movies, this policy did not extent to kung fu movies, and as a result I saw very few in the theaters during the 1970s. I did become more familiar with these movies in the 1980s, however, when a series of films were collected into a package and syndicated for television. This syndication deal, which broadcast dozens of anti-colonialist kung fu movies to television stations throughout the United States, marked the second significant exposure of Hong Kong action films to an American audience.
Just as the first wave of kung fu movies in the 1970s had captured the imagination of audiences at inner city theaters and rural drive-ins across America, so too did the second wave, collected in packages with names like Black Belt Theater and Kung Fu Theater. And in some ways, this particular exposure was more significant. For one thing, the films were delivered into American homes for free, at a time when there were fewer channel options and the home video revolution was still in its infancy. When Shaw Brothers film 36th Chamber of Shaolin was edited for television and broadcast as Master Killer on a Saturday afternoon in 1981, there was not much else on television. I still remember watching Master Killer for the first time and being mesmerized. Perhaps it was because I was older, and capable of deeper critical analysis, but for whatever reason, Master Killer resonated with me on a far deeper level than the handful of kung fu movies I had convinced my mom to take me to see when I was younger. This particular movie opened me up to a new type of film, a new culture, and though I did not fully comprehend it at the time, an expanded understanding of cultural oppression.
Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture is now available on Amazon.