Academic journal article Criticism

Eating Popcorn with Chopsticks: Revisionary Black Masculinity in Berry Gordy's the Last Dragon

Academic journal article Criticism

Eating Popcorn with Chopsticks: Revisionary Black Masculinity in Berry Gordy's the Last Dragon

Article excerpt

Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon (TriStar, 1985) performs a disruption into racist Hollywood depictions of Black men through the use of satire, stereotype, kitsch, camp, and fantasy. The him depicts its unconventional hero, a young Black martial arts master, as an endearing odd embodiment of Orientalist stereotypes. For instance, hero Leroy Green watches Bruce Lee's film Enter the Dragon (1973) in a New York City mid town movie theater while wearing traditional Chinese male clothing (cant: cheongsam) and a straw hat while he eats popcorn with chopsticks. This mise-en-scene is heavily coded in Western Orientalism and in Black fantasy of and desire for the grandeur of Chinese culture.1 White society is absent in the film and both the Black hero and Black villain of the film are invested in parodic, limited versions of Chinese and Japanese cultural forms. The film relieves us of the inevitability of a black-white racial binary by reframing this particular world as black-yellow. As M. T. Kato argues in discussing the globalization of martial arts popular culture, "[t]he popular cultural revolution ... offers a space in which autonomous subjectivity alternative to the dominant mode can be constructed."2 The Last Dragon, a box office success,3 functions as a fantastical space wherein Black and mixed-race authors (director Michael Shultz and screenwriter Louis Venosta) and audience engage in a complex, uneven, entertaining, and problematic relationship with Chinese and Japanese martial arts popular culture placed in a New York City context.

Journey into The Last Dragon

The film narrates the journey of young Black Harlem martial arts practitioner Leroy Green (Taimak Guarriello), who has reached the end of his training with his teacher, Master (Thomas Ikeda). Leroy must venture into the wider world (other parts of Manhattan) in order to obtain his last stage of realization-the glow (the last stage of the dragon's training). During his search, Leroy finds a love interest in local club celebrity Laura Charles (Vanity) and encounters two raffishly, comically wicked bad guys-a bullying martial arts tough named Sho'Nuff the Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III) and Eddie Árkádián (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 local hero. Although The Last Dragon ends in a typical, formulaic heterosexual romance, the film resists heteronormativity. Instead, it provides us with a virginal hero who is able to navigate martial arts masculinity and Orientalist feminization in order to offer a new model of Black masculinity.

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 both the Hong Kong print and the Cantonese print of its genealogical, aesthetic, and nominative forbearer Enter the Dragon (1973), The Last Dragon commences with a musical martial arts montage/ The viewer is treated to Leroy Green-a young, sweating, brown-skinned, wavy-haired muscular man-practicing his martial arts forms. The camera takes three quick shots of him-frontal, profile, and back to a frontal shot. It reads as a revised 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. 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. …

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