Judge Clark Douglas' kicks were fast as lightning.
Meet kung fu's black pioneers and heroes.
The Black Kung Fu Experience is the sort of documentary which reminds me of why I love PBS as much as I do. Year after year, they distribute a wide variety of documentaries on a host of little-considered but nonetheless compelling subjects. This particular flick came to life through the efforts of filmmakers Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chin (both of whom have carved a little niche for themselves making television documentaries on the subject of kung fu). It places the spotlight on a handful of different African-American kung fu pioneers, giving them an opportunity to elaborate on what drew them to kung fu and why eastern martial arts resonated so strongly with the black community during the 1960s and '70s.
The most compelling figure is Ron Van Clief, who once starred in such films as The Black Dragon's Revenge and Way of the Black Dragon. He spends a good deal of time detailing some of the horrific racism he encountered during the Vietnam era, including a chilling story about the time he was nearly beaten to death by his fellow soldiers while he was serving in the military. When he traveled to Hong Kong, he found a culture which judged individuals based on their individual merits rather than skin color. "If you could handle yourself in the world of martial arts, you were respected no matter what you looked like," he says. Mastering kung fu not only provided him with a new career, but gave him a significantly greater sense of self-worth.
Elsewhere, the documentary examines the notion of kung fu as a kind of violent-yet-graceful universal language; a physical art form which places people of numerous cultures on a level playing field. Though kung fu was at the core of many exploitation films highlighted by scenes of guys being kicked through windows, one person after another claims that what drew them to kung fu was the gracefulness of the form rather than its potential as a form of self-defense (though the importance of that side is certainly acknowledged, too).
If the documentary has a major failing, it's that it doesn't really have the time to examine the full depth of its subject (undoubtedly a result of clocking in at a PBS-friendly 60 minutes). We aren't really given a broader view of kung fu as a whole before jumping into the individual experiences of these men, and by the conclusion we aren't given a particularly good idea of what kind of impact the emergence of black kung fu stars had on the genre over the years. Still, what's here is absolutely worthwhile, and the filmmakers deserve credit for including as much as they do in the time they're allotted.
The standard-def transfer isn't anything to write home about, as much of the archival footage is rather messy and the newer stuff doesn't look as sharp as it ought to. Still, it works well enough. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is solid, though again, the older stuff can sound messy at times. Some additional material (both old and new) is included on the disc.
The Black Kung Fu Experience is a brief yet engaging look at a still-thriving subculture. Check it out.
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