In the third episode of Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” right before Luke Cage is about to take down Cottonmouth’s treasure vault, he puts in his headphones and we hear a snippet of dialogue: “Shaolin and the Wu Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?” It’s the lead-in to “Bring da Ruckus,” a classic by the Wu-Tang Clan from the album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” But it’s also a scene from the film “Shaolin and Wu Tang,” a 1980s martial arts film which the Wu-Tang Clan borrowed heavily from throughout their album.
While we’re all familiar with the interconnections between hip hop and kung fu, in this case it’s also symbolic of the major role that kung fu films, and Chinese culture in general, have played in the black community since the 1900s.
You can see the examples of this in a few shows that debuted in 2016, actually: Netflix’s “The Get Down,” which chronicles hip hop’s origins during the disco era, features an aspiring DJ who takes up the moniker “Shaolin Fantastic.” His introductory scenes are shrouded in the mystical, and he even displays dance moves evoking the kung fu aesthetic. In the fourth episode of FX’s “Atlanta,” we get some of the most telling angles on the inscrutable, lovable Darius as he becomes instantly enamored with a pawn-shop samurai sword, “Ghost Dog” style.
Kung fu started making its way into the African-American lexicon in the 1970s. Blaxploitation films were common during that time, when movements like Pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism were gaining momentum. Both movements espoused a nationalistic fervor among African Americans, and the films that followed highlighted themes of resistance to oppression, as well as independence, self-reliance and community.
According to a paper on blaxploitation and kung fu, blaxploitation’s major themes include: “(1) the desire for black unity; (2) community service, especially support for youth programs; (3) support for black businesses; (4) participation in all-black organizations; (5) knowledge and practice of African and African-American culture; and (6) support for efforts by blacks to gain governance of black communities.”
These empowering messages, tied to a fervor for community, meant kung fu films were readily accepted. It started with 1973’s “Five Fingers of Death,” one of the first kung fu films distributed in the U.S. Soon after, not only did movie theaters start double-booking blaxploitation and kung fu films in cities with a majority black population, but some began showing kung fu films exclusively in inner cities.
This sudden popularity started with the fact that kung fu movie plots largely mirrored blaxploitation tropes: A non-white protagonist rising against racism using violence and retribution. Solidarity with the Chinese community was sown even earlier, when W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1903, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the seas…”
Bruce Lee provided the major link between kung fu films and African American audiences. Not only was his aesthetic attractive, Lee was also responsible for introducing political themes in his films, with narratives that almost always centered on anti-imperialism and the fight against racial oppression. His 1972 “Fists of Fury” centered on the racist Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the 1920s, and a Chinese protagonist fighting back against racial slurs; “Return of the Dragon” has a lone Chinese man saving his family from Italian mobsters in Rome. Lee’s movies tended to feature working class heroes, at a time when 77.7 percent of the African American population was also working class. His characters were often placed in foreign environments where they became the lone minority — another universal scenario that resonated.
But those Chinese influences aren’t just restricted to theaters: What’s Luke Cage eating in almost every food scene throughout the series? The answer: Chinese take-out, in those iconic white paper boxes. While it may seem like an insignificant detail, Chinese food is actually an important part of Chinese and African American intersectional history.
The history of Chinese restaurants in America is very much rooted in discrimination. Because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, most Chinese immigrants were only able to say in the country by opening businesses in the service industry, such as restaurants. They became widely successful, because Chinese chefs learned to cater their dishes to American tastes — New York City, for example, had over 700 Chinese restaurants by 1960.
In 1927 Wallace Thurman, a Harlem Renaissance novelist, wrote: “Negroes seem to have a penchant for Chinese food — there are innumerable Chinese restaurants all over Harlem.” Americanized Chinese food, which included fried rice, chicken wings, and chop suey, came to resemble staples of soul food cuisine, such as pig’s feet, barbecued pork and fried chicken. It also didn’t hurt that the food was usually affordable within the lower-income communities in which they lived and served. But perhaps most importantly, African Americans were experiencing rampant discrimination in public establishments, and so Chinese restaurants became a haven of sorts.
“You had Chinese restaurants in New York City welcoming black customers,” said food historian Adrian Miller. “They were one of the few places where African Americans could go out and eat that wasn’t an African American establishment.”
Just like blaxploitation and kung fu films shared themes of oppression, Chinese restaurant owners and African American patrons shared the status of being outsiders in a white majority — and while Chinese chefs willingly served African Americans and African Americans loved eating Chinese food — there was still enough racially charged animus to go around. The book “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America,” mentions Chinese restaurants that would refuse service to African Americans in order to keep their white customers.
In 2016, many Chinese Americans protested the conviction of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American police officer who shot Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, which highlighted the way Asians can use our “model minority” status to separate themselves from other non-white groups. It was also a bumper year for gross cultural appropriation at the BET Awards, with a performance that unapologetically used East Asian culture as props.
But we’re seeing a changing dynamic between the communities, both on and off screen. We see it in a younger generation of Asian Americans, who rallied together to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the show, Luke Cage’s commitment to protecting “Ghengis” Connie Lin — a Chinese restaurant owner — proved to be a major turning point in his hero’s journey.
Luke Cage’s first comic book, “Heroes for Hire,” debuted in 1972 and became “Power Man” in 1974. He was joined by Iron Fist in 1978 and their shared adventures in “Power Man/Iron Fist” lasted until 1986. Iron Fist Danny Rand is a white kid, mystically empowered with kung fu powers, to be played by Finn Jones (Ser Loras Tyrell from “Game of Thrones”).
This, combined with Tilda Swinton’s problematic role in the upcoming “Doctor Strange” movie, has ensured that fans will keep the conversation about whitewashing and representation going strong well into the franchises’ next decade. For every Idris Elba-as-a-Norse God, there’s a character with questionable roots, like Danny, who embodies a lot of the more unfortunate attempts in 1970s comics to address our shifting societal mores.
That time hasn’t ended. But while we’re still in an age when the lines between appreciation, appropriation and caricature can be hard to discern for a lot of well-meaning people — and equally so for the resentfully disinterested — “Luke Cage” embodies a hopeful message, at least, of unity in the face of oppression and tyranny.
“Luke Cage” is streaming now on Netflix US; “Iron Fist” will debut March 17, 2017.