The Last Dragon and the Cult of the Small and Virtuous Producer

In my previous post, I read Berry Gordy’s 1985 martial arts film The Last Dragon through the lens of George Lipsitz’s concept of cultural syncretism put forth in his work Time Passages. In this post, I want to keep looking at George Lipsitz and The Last Dragon, but to look further at market logics in order to complicate things a bit.

In Time Passages, Lipsitz finds the formation of counter-hegemonic historical blocs primarily in the years that followed World War II, those that saw the birth of rock and roll and the television. For example, the scene on Central Ave. in Los Angeles was fertile ground for the mixing of rock and roll with Latino folk sounds. There the late great Johnny Otis, the son of Greek immigrants, firmly embedded himself in the black community much like the diverse inhabitants of Harlem did so with one another in The Last Dragon. Lipsitz has fun with the way that Otis, a Greek American who adopted an African American identity, produces hit Latino rock and roll made by Li’l Julian Herrera, who it turns out wasn’t Latino at all, but was in fact a Hungarian Jew. [1]

We can also find such community building earlier, in the era of the Popular Front. Central to the American brand of communism in the late 1930s and 1940s was the idea that solidarity would be formed across races and ethnicities and immigrant identities in order to form the basis for reform — if not revolution — on the behalf of the working class. [2]

In his essay “Sent For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today,” George Lipsitz honors the Popular Front while pointing out some of its limits. Specifically, Lipsitz takes issue with the American exceptionalism behind much of the left’s rhetoric. He pits the conception of America as a “monolithic and self-contained whole” against a more global story that, while accounting for the “progressive multiculturalism and polyvocality” of the Popular Front, also suggests that those same attributes reified an imperial project.[3] In my own work, I start with the assumption that the Popular Front was the closest the country got to shedding its reactionary populism and its fetishization of liberty. In the history of the twentieth century, it only gets worse. Lipsitz’s point still holds however. What then does this mean for how we approach postwar cultural syncretism?

Lipsitz argues in Time Passages that the counter-narratives offered by cross-cultural urban historical blocs present a challenge of legitimation to the postwar logic of the cold war suburban market economy. Reading him twenty five years later, I’m not so sure. His expressed concern is that the emphasis of American exceptionalism on “a producer-oriented yeoman democracy” occludes thinking that transcends the ideographical boundaries of the nation-state, and that such images necessarily express themselves in ways that are coded masculine and white, and this no doubt true.[4] But it also seems to me that the Americanism of the Popular Front of which Lipsitz was rightly critical has itself become globalized and syncretized. And it appears to us in glimpses in The Last Dragon.

At the center of Hollywood’s mainstream depictions of class, I argue, is what I term the cult of the small and virtuous producer. Films from The Grapes of Wrath to Sunshine Cleaning celebrate productive labor as long as it is humble, honest, and often, doesn’t result in too much capital accumulation on the part of the producer. Such an event would be inevitably deleterious to the producer’s moral virtue. The cult of the small and virtuous producer as it appears in cinema frequently offers the wealthy as bogeymen, but only to suggest that material wealth destroys one’s soul, and that one is better off toiling as a small and virtuous producer.

In The Last Dragon, Angela might not appear to fit the mold of the small and virtuous producer at first. She is a pop singer who appears to based on Cyndi Lauper, and her lack of talent and intellect are offered up as jokes in the first act of the movie. But in later scenes, when she stands up to Eddie Arkadian, her unscrupulous manager and boyfriend, she reveals herself as having humble origins, or as Arkadian says when she leaves, “a no talent dental hygiene school dropout from Kew Gardens.” In planning to return to Queens, Angela accepts the logic of the status quo by invoking a stance whose only intelligible critique is to suffer righteously.

Leroy’s father is a small and virtuous producer too. He owns a pizza shop that is staffed by his family. His establishment appears to be successful, and it likely serves a variety of community-based functions for the heterogenous Harlem of The Last Dragon‘s world. That it potentially functions as a symbol for the dreams, strategies, and tactics that have appeared in a range of social justice and equality movements, ones that have challenged hierarchies of race and class and at the same time recirculated market logics as well, is not to stamp the family business with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. It is only to note the ubiquity of such discourses, and to suggest the need to think about their bearing on imaginative depictions of non-normative American communities.

But what about Leroy, the film’s protagonist? At first glance, he appears to adhere to certain tenets of the Protestant work ethic that is genealogically imbricated with producerism.[5] Leroy, by all accounts, seeks little earthly delight. He appears to pursue an ascetic life, and he does what he does because it is difficult, not because it is pleasurable. But Leroy expects no payment for his good deeds, and in this way, we can read his pursuit of martial arts mastery in the context of the contemporary “basic income” movement, which seeks to imagine a society beyond work, where crafts or hobbies are distinct from and privileged over remunerative labor.[6] If the pursuit of the highest level of mastery — what is called “the glow” in the film — is the thing that The Last Dragon most privileges, the question that it asks of us ultimately then, is how to make such quests available to all who might wish to seek it?

Notes:

[1] George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 142-3.

[2] George Lipsitz, “‘Sent for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today’: American Studies Scholarship and the New Social Movements,” Cultural Critique, no. 40 (1998): 210. Also see Alan Wald, Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[3] Lipsitz, “‘Sent for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today,'” 217.

[4] Ibid., 218.

[5] The best definition of producerism that I’ve encountered appears in: Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 13.

[6] On the distinction between hobbies and remunerative labor, see: James Livingston, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2011).