The Cultural Syncretism of Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

In 1985, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, thought it made perfect sense to make a martial arts action film. The result, The Last Dragon, is unforgettable in almost every sense of the word. In fact, if you were a dorky, martial-arts obsessed kid in the eighties, and your parents subscribed to HBO, you probably remember it. It’s not a perfect film; it’s a little too goofy, and some of its characters are painted in strokes that are far too broad, but it’s a lot of fun, and just perhaps, a little subversive.

I started thinking about Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon when news came down that the film’s female lead passed away this week. The actress, Vanity, was better known for playing opposite Prince in Purple Rain. But in various discussions with friends and co-workers, I was surprised to see just how many people had fond memories of The Last Dragon. I knew I had to re-watch it. 

(You can watch the movie for free via the YouTube embed above, but I should say it’s worth trying to find a higher-res download if you can.)

The Last Dragon tells the story of a young man in Harlem named Leroy Green. As an expert in martial arts, Green prefers to be called Bruce Leroy as an homage to his hero, Bruce Lee. He’s adopted not only the art of self-defense, but also an entire manner of dress and way of speaking that borrows from a version of Asian culture — real or imagined, I’m not sure — quite different from that of his black family members and neighbors. Leroy wears a large straw hat and speaks with a kind of faux-ancient tone of deference, often bowing to those with whom he converses.

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Leroy encounters two threats in the film. First is the black gangster, Sho ‘Nuff, another martial arts expert who terrorizes the neighborhood, and declares himself the “Shogun of Harlem.” Sho ‘Nuff wants to fight Leroy so that he can prove he is the best. But Leroy refuses, seeking to avoid confrontation as his sage Chinese master has taught him. Elsewhere, a no-talent music producer named Eddie Arkadian has decided that the only way to effectively promote his girlfriend Angela’s music career is to bully the host of a local music dance show. When the host, played by Vanity refuses to give Angela a platform on the show — a spin on Solid Gold called “Seventh Heaven” — Arkadian decides to kidnap her. Leroy has no choice but to try to save her.

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Eddie Arkadian and Angela

The funniest scenes in The Last Dragon occur when Bruce Leroy, searching for a master that might provide the solution to his troubles, naively assumes that there may be one in charge of a fortune cookie factory. He visits the factory, asking if he can speak with the master, but the men working there won’t let him in — they don’t want to reveal their secret, that the fortunes in the cookies are mass produced by a machine. (Leroy should have been tipped by one of the movie’s slyest jokes — the name of the factory is “Sum Dum Goy” — but perhaps he speaks neither Chinese nor Yiddish.) The three men working at the factory are jive-talking and Asian. In other words, they are the mirror image of Leroy. They invert the scripts of race and culture, pasty and pudgy as they are, by teasing Leroy for being square and unhip. In response, determined to find the master that must be behind the creation of so many fortune cookies, Leroy attempts to code switch by talking like a black guy, so that he might he might endear himself to the Asian men. He fails miserably.

But back at the dojo, where Leroy teaches his friends not just how to fight but how to wield such knowledge responsibly, he is the mentor and hero of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom exhibit skills in a way that is a little less silly and broadly stereotypical than the scenes in which Leroy interacts with his sensei. Those kids, whatever their race or ethnicity, unite to help Leroy in the film’s finale when he faces down Arkadian and Sho ‘Nuff. In particular, one of the best fight sequences in the movie showcases the talents of a pre-adolescent Ernie Reyes, Jr., already a martial arts wunderkind. When I was a karate-obsessed pre-adolescent myself, he was the coolest.

All of this brings to mind George Lipsitz’s classic work in American studies, Time PassagesIn the book, Lipsitz emphasizes the degree to which “cultural fusions” have enabled minorities in twentieth century United States to find places of belonging, to foster cross-cultural solidarity, and to build, in Gramscian terms, a “historical bloc” that might challenge the hegemonic discourse of market logic. [1] A generous read of The Last Dragon suggests that the film is consciously playing with and subverting not just the borders between black and Asian, but also with the normative image of America itself. When Leroy’s little brother calls him a “chocolate covered Yellow Peril,” he does so conjuring the shared histories of racialization and marginalization among people of color. The Last Dragon doesn’t deny the discourses and symbols present in and associated with race and ethnicity; there are no Sidney-Poitier-attempts to deny cultural and material realities. But instead it places them front and center, offering them as an alternative that is at once authentic and knowingly malleable.

(This is the first in a two part post about The Last Dragon. Read the second part here.)

Notes:

[1] George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and Popular Culture (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 140, 152.