HomeAAPI ActorsBe Curious My Friend: police brutality

Be Curious My Friend: police brutality

by Thomas Lee

In one scene from the 1973 film “Enter the Dragon,” Williams, played by African American actor Jim Kelly, is walking down the street when a police car suddenly pulls up behind him.

Two white cops get out and start harassing Williams for no particular reason. They search him and find a ticket to Hong Kong via Hawaii.

“You’re not going to Hawaii!” one cop sneers.

Without a word, Williams, a martial arts expert, proceeds to methodically beat up the cops, even throwing one through a wooden fence. He then steals the police car and drives away.

The scene had no relevance to the overall plot but probably enthralled African Americans who have experienced decades of police brutality. Finally, a black man gave the cops what they deserved.

Alas, “Enter the Dragon” is mere fiction. Fantasy. Nothing reminded me more of this fact than a trip to Minneapolis, where I lived for a decade. I was visiting a friend and he suggested we go to 38th St. and Chicago Avenue, the site of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.

I must have driven through this intersection dozens of times. But now, it has become an international shrine to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Four years ago, police stopped Floyd, whom they suspected of passing a bad check. Officer Derek Chavin pressed his knee against the back of Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and lying on the ground. Floyd died.

One black man in 1973 beating the snot out of racist cops. Another black man begging for his life while literally under the foot of a cop in 2020. The juxtaposition could not be more jarring. 

Yet the two scenes are intimately related. Pop culture mirrors not only our worst fears but our deepest desires. Movies, television shows, comic books, music…they not only reflect people and society as they exist but also the people and society we wish to become.

That’s why many African Americans – then and now- love Bruce Lee. In his movies, Lee embodied strength and power, which he used to fight injustice and oppression.

“The frequent message of fighting back against the system of oppression resonated with Black American audiences,” author and pop culture critic David Walker wrote. “This is where Bruce Lee and kung fu movies come into the picture of Black liberation and self-identification, which addressed such universal concepts as the desire of the oppressed to usurp the oppressor.”

People often confuse actors and the characters they play on screen. Take romance. Audiences often wish the onscreen couple were a real-life couple because we have so much invested in them. 

In Bruce Lee’s case, it was truly hard to distinguish the man from the myth. For one thing, he really was a martial arts legend. He preferred his own stunts. He also choreographed the fight scenes, such as Williams’ confrontation with the cops in “Enter the Dragon.” The dialogue Lee spoke often reflected his real-life beliefs and philosophies. Lee also lived an extraordinary life and tragically died at a young age.

Perhaps that’s why Lee has arguably become more of an icon to the Black community than Jim Kelly. It must have been gratifying to see Kelly, also a real-lifemartial artist, confront those cops in the movie. But if that ever happened in real life, the police would have shot him dead.

Or press a knee onto the back of Williams’ neck until he passed away.

But fighting against injustice doesn’t always mean physical violence. Bruce Lee didn’t march in the civil rights protests but he did lead by example. 

He also had a good social and business sense to cast Jim Kelly in “Enter the Dragon.” The scene with the cops had nothing to do with the movie’s overall plot but Lee instinctively knew it would appeal to Black audiences in the United States.

In fact, you could draw a straight line from Bruce Lee and Hong Kong kung fu movies to, as David Walker had argued, Black liberation and empowerment, which gave us Blaxploitation films, hip-hop culture, and now the Black Lives Matter movement.

Bruce Lee also instinctively understood something about America. He could have stayed pat in Hong Kong where he was already a star. But in order toproject global influence, Lee knew he needed the United States. 

For all of it warts and flaws, America acts as a megaphone for the rest of the world. For all of the talk about the decline of American influence overseas, the United States still holds an unshakable grasp on the world’s soul and conscience. China will one day overtake America as the world’s largest economy but it can never really match the United States in this regard.

Case in point: George Floyd. He has become an international symbol for social justice, everywhere from Syria and Sydney to Brazil and Belgium. 

“Floyd’s killing triggered something in the planetary psychosocial algorithm,” read an article from the Atlantic Council. “What it has underscored is that even as American influence has declined and the mythology associated with American exceptionalism has faded, events in the United States continue — whether by way of disappointment or inspiration– to shape the course of events around the world.”

Disappointment and inspiration. Stone cold reality and lofty aspiration. There are no words that better describe the contradiction that the United States represents.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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