Blaxploitation films. You get it, right? Films such as Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, made in the 1970s, aimed squarely at US urban audiences; cool, funk soundtracks, liberally populated with pimps, dealers, incredible clothes and strong black characters, be they good or evil.
One ingredient that isn’t so widely known (but is a genre itself) is ‘black fu’—blaxploitation films that have a strong martial arts presence, be they in the finale or as one weapon in the hero/heroine’s repertoire.
Kung fu (using the term extremely broadly, in a ‘movie martial arts’ sense rather than an ‘actual martial arts’ sense) rose to prominence in the US in the early ’70s, coinciding with the success of Bruce Lee, the first major Hong Kong action hero to find a wide following in the international market.
Lee’s success, of course, followed on from the years that China’s famous Shaw Brothers, Run Run and Runme, spent creating a library of kung fu movies. The Shaw Brothers’ studio operated from the 1930s but began churning out martial arts films in the 1960s. In the ’70s they had a real impact in the United States, and it’s this Golden Age that people generally think about when they consider Shaw Brothers’ films.
The brothers’ films include The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Five Deadly Venoms (1978), movies that would have a major impact on blaxploitation directors and, even later, on filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, and most recently, RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan).
With The Man With The Iron Fists (2012), RZA not only created an homage to classic, Hong Kong kung fu cinema, but he was deeply influenced by it before making the film. RZA has built a philosophy based on the intellectual side of the Shaolin Warrior films: the Wu-Tang Clan name was inspired by Shaolin and Wu-Tang (1983), directed by Gordon Liu, who stars in The Man With The Iron Fists as the Abbott, the name given to director RZA by his Wu-Tang Clan members. It’s not just a fun action film but also a full circle of destiny for the writer, director and star.
Hong Kong kung fu movies are a genre in themselves, but it’s ‘black fu’ that has a verve and style all its own.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), directed by Melvin Van Peebles (Mario’s dad) is generally considered the first blaxploitation film, and Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, Sr, and Superfly (1972) directed by his son, Gordon Parks, Jr, took the genre to a whole new level. Superfly was the highest-grossing film in the US in October 1972, beating The Godfather.
Ironically, the film was eventually out-grossed by its soundtrack, featuring Curtis Mayfield, which gives you a good indication of the popularity of the music associated with blaxploitation titles. Isaac Hayes’ ‘Theme From Shaft’ famously won the Academy Award.
Superfly, starring Ron O’Neal, who plays coke dealer, Priest, has him use his kung fu to deal with junkies, pimps, drug dealers and dirty cops alike. Superfly also set the trend for ‘pimpmobiles’—the customised 1971 Cadillac Eldorado used in the film had the largest V8 ever used in a production vehicle: boasting an 8.2L engine! Actual pimps began modifying their cars as a result of Superfly. The Superfly car was owned by K.C., an actual hustler from Harlem who also plays a pimp in the film.
Bruce Lee’s impact on US audiences began with The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). It was Enter The Dragon (1973) directed by Robert Clouse and released July 26, 1973—six days after Bruce Lee’s death—that was the first martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers). It made Lee a superstar. The film, shot for $850,000, went on to gross more than $200 million.
Later stars, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, were stuntmen in the film, but it was Jim Kelly’s performance as Williams that made him a star and resulted in an immediate influence on blaxploitation films.
Enter The Dragon (1973)
Jim Kelly was the first Afro-American martial arts superstar. His next film was Black Belt Jones (1974—also directed by Robert Clouse, who would direct Game of Death (1978), cobbling together posthumous footage of Bruce Lee, stunt doubling, and featuring a famous bout with Bruce Lee’s student, seven-feet tall basketball star, Kareem Abdul Jabaar—where he played the instructor of a karate school threatened by the mob.
Black Belt Jones (1974)
Next came Three The Hard Way (1974), directed by Superfly‘s Gordon Parks, Jr, where he teamed up with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, who rose to prominence in The Dirty Dozen (1967), to foil a white supremacist plot to taint the water supply that would kill blacks and not-whites, followed by Hot Potato (1976), a martial arts adventure set in Thailand, which completed a three picture deal with Warner Brothers.
Three The Hard Way (1974)
He followed on with Black Samurai (1977), where he played Robert Sand, agent of D.R.A.G.O.N., who must save Chinese girl, Toki, the daughter of an Eastern ambassador. He fights his way from Hong Kong, Miami to California.
Black Samurai (1977)
Kelly continued with The Tattoo Connection—a.k.a. Black Belt Jones 2—in 1978 and then Death Dimension (1978)—a.k.a. Freeze Bomb, Icy Death, The Kill Factor and Black Eliminator) which co-starred Harold Sakata, George Lazenby, Terry Moore and Aldo Ray.
Jim Kelly’s finale as a leading man was in One Down, Two To Go (1982). He continued receiving small parts but eventually became a pro on the Senior Men’s Circuit tennis tour.
Black Belt Jones 2: The Tattoo Connection (1978)
When it comes to female stars in blaxploitation films, kung fu is less of a major facet. Pam Grier’s Coffy (1973), about a nurse on a revenge rampage, wasn’t so much a martial artist as a brawler, willing to do what it took, with whatever came to hand.
It was Cleopatra Jones (1973) starring Tamara Dobson, as a (sort-of) female James Bond—driving a ’73 Corvette Stingray (with guns in the doors) who brought the kung fu. The film starred Shelly Winters as lesbian drug lord, Mommy. Directed by Jack Starret, it was also Warner Bros film. Tamara Dobson was a model and her height became part of the character: “six-feet two-inches of dynamite”. As a Special Agent to the President, Cleopatra Jones knew how to dish it out.
The sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975) saw Jones travel to Hong Kong (unsurprisingly) to free two government agents captured by The Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens). Teaming up with Tanny (Ni Tien) she fights her way through the Dragon Lady’s casino (HQ for her drug empire) her henchmen, and then the Dragon Lady herself in the finale.
Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1976)
Another karate-chopping femme fatale was T.N.T. Jackson (1974)—a.k.a. Dynamite Jackson, Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson. Starring Jean Bell, one of the first black Playboy Playmates, it was set in Hong Kong. Diana Jackson (a.k.a. TNT) goes on the hunt for her missing brother, kidnapped by a criminal gang in Hong Kong. The film was produced by none other than Roger Corman.
The ultimate team-up of female force was probably Ebony, Ivory & Jade (1976)—a.k.a. She Devils in Chains, American Beauty Hostages, Foxfire, Foxforce—where three female athletes are kidnapped during an international track-meet in Hong Kong and have to fight their way to freedom.
Ebony, Ivory and Jade (1976)
Black fu got a sense of humour with the release of Dolemite (1975). Starring Rudy Ray Moore, who started his career as a stand-up comic (the character of Dolemite being part of his act), the film was directed by D’Urville Martin, who stars as the bad guy, Willie Green. Dolemite has a team of karate fighting call girls who help him fight his way back to the top after being framed by crooked cops and sent to prison.
The Human Tornado (1976)
The sequel, The Human Tornado (1976), finishes with a kung fu extravaganza. Years later, Shaolin Dolemite saw Moore return as ‘Monk Ru-Dee’ in 1999. The Return of Dolemite came out in 2002, finishing the run.
While black fu films featured Afro-American stars with Eastern skills, one man, Ron Van Clief, became the very first foreigner to became a headline star in the Hong Kong film industry. Van Clief starred in The Black Dragon (1974), a cash-in on the death of Bruce Lee, followed by Super Weapon (1975), Kung Fu Fever (1979), Bamboo Trap (1979), Kung Fu Executioner (1980), Enter Another Dragon (1981) Fist Of Fear Touch of Death (1983), Fight To Death (1983) and took a part in The Last Dragon (1985).
The Black Dragon (1974)
The Last Dragon (1985) starred newcomer Taimak as Leroy Green, who wants to achieve The Final Level in martial arts. He’ll know when he’s done this because he will achieve “the glow”—literally glowing with mystical energy as the finest fighter alive. He has to fight evil arcade mogul Eddie Arkadian and Sho’nuff, the Shogun of Harlem. The film featured cameos from William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri.
When it comes to the celebration of the genre, films such as The Wayans Brothers’ I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988) and Undercover Brother (2002) were eventually eclipsed by Black Dynamite (2009). Starring Michael Jai White, who channelled an imaginary football player (Ferrante Jones) turned martial arts actor for his role. Black Dynamite is the quintessential celebration of the black fu genre.
Black Dynamite (2009)
Less fun, but very cool, is Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), starring Forest Whitaker as an assassin trained in martial arts. While it isn’t quite black fu, the film has a cameo from RZA, who worked on the soundtrack, in his first film appearance, and the first step, since being inspired by Gordon Liu, et al, at the age of 11, to becoming the director of The Man With The Iron Fists (2012).