Martial arts moves get a hip-hop flair

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Forget buddy movies featuring a by-the-book veteran and a wisecracking maverick. Hollywood's new Formula 1 action pairing teams up a Hong Kong martial arts star and an American rapper. Take this week's new No. 1 film, "Cradle 2 the Grave," featuring Jet Li and rapper DMX, which continues a steady - and profitable - postmodern fusion of martial arts with hip-hop music and style.

While martial-arts movies featuring African-American actors date at least as far back as 1977's "Black Samurai," the genre has come alive in Hollywood only over the past few years - with such films as 1998's "Rush Hour," starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and 2000's "Romeo Must Die." Like the new "Cradle," "Romeo" starred Li and DMX, together with Delroy Lindo and the late Aaliyah.

While critics might dismiss the films as violent fluff, their box-office success points to a genuine cross-cultural influence - evidenced by a generation of African-Americans who have incorporated martial arts philosophies into their own art forms. Multiplatinum-selling hip-hop artists the Wu-Tang Clan, for example, incorporate Eastern spirituality into their music and personas.

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"Every rapper and every hip-hop artist will speak of 'Five Deadly Venoms,' 'Master Killer,' and other movies such as that with great love and try to re-create them ... in their videos," says Ric Meyers, author of "Great Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan."

The appeal of martial arts isn't restricted to black rappers. NBA stars like Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby wear tattoos with Chinese characters. And Brooklyn filmmaker John Carluccio fuses hip-hop, sound clips from African-American comedians, and kung fu in "hop-fu," as part of his live theater performance.

The fusion began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the arrival of such popular martial-arts movies as "Five Fingers of Death" and Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon." Then, after Lee's death, a glut of cheaply made imports turned Hollywood away from the genre. The cheaper films often could find American distribution only at inner-city theaters, where they played along with revivals of the established kung fu classics.

In theaters around New York's Times Square and Chinatown, for example, triple features played regularly to packed houses. "I remember as a kid in South Central Los Angeles going to see 'Five Fingers of Death' and a series of them afterwards," recalls actor Forest Whitaker, who starred in "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," one of the most critically acclaimed movies to combine martial arts and hip-hop. He is also an aficionado of both martial arts and Eastern philosophy.

"After seeing those movies, I started to be an avid reader of Taoism [and] Lao-Tzu. I walked around junior high carrying those books."

Although martial arts films were popular in the '70s with white college students, "the people who really understood their galvanizing, exciting effects were African- Americans," says Mr. Meyers.

Martial-arts films routinely featured underdog heroes rebelling against more powerful oppressors. Amid the strife of the civil-rights movement and Vietnam, African-American audiences identified with this empowering mythology.

And, Mr. Whitaker says, it filled a deeper need. "Tribal African spirituality is not really embraced by African-Americans, but there are parallels with Asian spirituality," he explains. "It's a way for African-Americans to get in touch with their spiritual DNA, even if it's through another culture."

What some people say is missing from Hollywood's recent hip-hop/martial-arts movies, however, is a deeper-rooted spirituality. "I'm glad they're making these films, and I'm not putting them down," Whitaker says. "But there [are] such great stories that you could tell in this genre if filmmakers had a little deeper understanding of them."

"All martial arts are based on a yin-yang of internal and external," Meyers adds. "Americans try to forget the internal entirely, which results in bad movies."

That said, "Cradle" and similar martial-arts/hip-hop movies represent a small step for both communities on-screen. A generation ago, audiences would not have seen two different minority actors headlining a Hollywood action picture. And if adding hip-hop to martial-arts movies helps bring the genre to a wider audience, all the better, say its fans.

"Martial-arts films are about taking power into your own hands," says Whitaker. "There's a real metamorphosis going on in this country right now. And that's the time when films like these, if they're told in the right way, can be really important."

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