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

by Ethan Tussey

by Cutler Edwards for IN MEDIA RES

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.

Prefigurative Hip Hop Cinema

A video clip with scenes from the films "Boss Nigger," "7 Grandmasters," "Mystery of Chessboxing."

from Boss Nigger/7 Grandmasters (1975/1978/1979)
Creator: Jack Arnold/Joseph Kuo
Distributor: Dimension Pictures/Hong Hwa Motion Picture Company
Posted by Ethan Tussey