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Super Fly and the American Dream: Performing Asian Martial Arts in Blaxploitation Cinema

by Ethan Tussey

by Celeste A. Fisher for IN MEDIA RES

The performance of Asian martial arts in the blaxploitation films of the seventies is typically constructed as a means to fight crime and corruption in the black community. In films such as Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), the main characters use martial arts to protect “the black community” from those who seek to destroy and/or control it. While “good” verses “bad” is clearly defined in these films, Super Fly (1972) takes the perspective of the criminal occupying post-civil rights urban spaces in America. Instead of the narrative focusing on the activist whose purpose is for the greater good of “the community,” the film centers on a low-level drug dealer who is stuck in “the life” but is desperately trying to get out -- all the while being held back by those who benefit from him being there. Youngblood Priest sells and uses drugs, but he strives for the real American dream, to be free. Priest, out for his own liberation, is a flamboyantly dressed, street hustler strategically planning and fighting for his civil rights. This is quite provocative in that his character simultaneously breaks and reinforces stereotypes of black criminality. The performance of Asian culture, although there are no Asian characters in the film, adds to the complexity of his character.  His decision to study and later use marital arts against his white oppressor adds an interesting layer to the representation of the black hustler in film. What exactly is the hustler identifying with in his performance of martial arts? Why doesn't his view of liberation match those that strive to better the community?

Super Fly and Martial Arts

Clips from Super Fly

from Super Fly (1972)
Creator: Gordon Parks Jr.
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Posted by Ethan Tussey