Kung Fu and Cowboys: Hip Hop Cinema in the 1970s?

Curator's Note

We should consider popular 1970s films as prefigurative hip-hop cinema, specifically Hong Kong kung-fu movies, the decade’s Black Westerns, and even the Jamaican The Harder They Come. These films advanced radical critiques of racism, colonialism, and economic restructuring, tying the local experiences of the South Bronx to a global movement that might be characterized as a popular culture Third World Left. These films presented nonwhite heroes in a sustained way for the first time on U.S. movie screens: determined, creative, defending their communities against corruption and violence according to personal moral codes that prioritized "justice" over "law." Their fights for freedom resonated in communities with a history of transnational activism and struggles for self-determination, especially African American, Puerto Rican, and recently-arrived Caribbean residents of New York City.

Kung-fu films impacted b-boys in particular, the kinetic migration from screen to street is easy to trace visually and through interviews. But this decidedly anti-colonial genre’s impact on the embattled black and brown population of New York City has deeper significance if we take seriously the films’ ideological elements as well. For youth whose sheer physical presence on city streets was often seen as criminal, b-boys’ defiantly spinning legs and whirling arms carved out and reclaimed space in the community.

Similarly, a boomlet of Black Westerns reimagined the history of US imperialist expansion, their black protagonists challenging the forces of racial and capitalist oppression. Films like Boss Nigger and Adios Amigo challenged the discursive construction of New York’s minority population as "savages" in need of civilizing, epitomized in the South Bronx by the 41st Police Precinct’s nickname "Fort Apache.” Early hip-hop performers engaged this debate in a variety of ways, from Sugarhill Gang’s "Apache," linking the struggles of black and native peoples, to Kool Moe Dee’s tale of (un)armed neighborhood self-defense, "Wild Wild West."

That is, hip-hop emerged as part of a multiracial, transnational project, continuing and translating the more formally recognizable radical imaginaries of the 1960s in important ways. Understanding hip-hop’s historic connection to these films encourages us to think of hip-hop as an always already political form connected to global movements since its birth in the South Bronx. It helps us to broaden the conversation about hip-hop cinema and hip-hop more generally beyond racial markers, and directs us toward a definition of hip-hop cinema as a vehicle for radical politics and strategies of struggle in the present.

Comments

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Can we apply this more broadly?

This is a really interesting post and you make very good points about some of the filmic precursors to hip-hop and hip-hop cinema.  Pointing to the role of Kung-Fu and Black Westerns in laying a foundation for later hip-hop cultural products helps expand the discourse out from what seems like the more classic narrative of Blaxploitation and teen musicals as prefigurative of early hip-hop cinema (here I’m obviously thinking of the hip-hopsploitation films I’ve discussed in my post).  In expanding the genealogy of hip-hop cinema, you’re also shifting the emphasis of its defining features.  Some of the features that you’ve pointed to (eg challenging the standard racialized narrative of urban minority groups and placing in their hands more agency and political power) are echoed in Blaxploitation, while others aren’t.  Teasing out the difference between these two genealogies further would also seem like a worthy goal.

I’d like to take up your final sentence and pose a question for you.  I agree that moving the conversation about hip-hop cinema, and hip-hop more generally, "beyond  racial markers" is necessary, but I wonder if redefining "hip-hop cinema as a vehicle for radical politics and strategies of stuggle" is fully tenable.  What, for example, do we do with films like Breaking, The Disorderlies, Honey, or You Got Served?  While there may be elements of struggle in these films, I would hardly call radical what politics they contain.  Perhaps it would be okay not to clal these hip-hop cinema, if you want to hold to this genre defintion, but then I’d also like to see a bit more rational for why this particular denre definition is useful

Again, great post and thanks for being in the conversation.

Cutler Edwards's picture

More of a suggestion than a redefinition...

 Thanks, Aaron, for the generous comment. I guess what I meant was not to try to completely (re)define hip-hop cinema as exclusively a vehicle for struggle. Rather, I hoped to highlight some ways of considering other kinds of hip-hop cinema, beyond what seem to be the two poles currently: commercial, exploitative films (Disorderlies, etc) or "authentic" offerings like the hiphopsploitation you discussed in your work. That is, I think we can all agree that all of the above are hip-hop cinema to some degree (for better or for worse).

But like Chuck said, this is a sampling sport, and I wanted to propose that we look farther afield in locating the limits and possibilities of hip-hop cinema. Ghost Dog, sure. But Flashdance, for instance, was as much a part of the whole milieu as Debbie Harry. Scarface, and yes, You Got Served. Even my beloved Disorderlies, wherein the humor and resourcefulness of everyone’s favorite overweight hip-hop trio reenergizes the ill and foils the villain.

There’s a power hidden in those silly narratives, even if it’s no great manifesto. I suppose part of the consideration of the radical potential of these films is located in how we study them, where we find politics, and where we come down on the producer/consumer question regarding the message and mission of these films. I understand hip-hop to convey very different messages to different demographics musically, and I think it’s worth thinking about hip-hop cinema the same way. Hip-hop cinema doesn’t have to provide all the answers for revolution to be radical, but it does have to provide—at least for me—some engagement with a larger set of "freedom dreams," to bite Robin Kelley. 

This was off the top, so it rambles a little, but I see this forum as more of a freestyle. Hopefully I left you with something of interest to respond to~

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