Thelma Oliver was a dancer and actress who in the mid to late 1960s was making her mark on Broadway and on US film history in director Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker. Then she started studying yoga and became Krishna Kaur. This is her story.
Oliver was born in Los Angeles, California in 1941. Her father, Cappy Oliver, played trumpet with Lionel Hampton’s band and her mother sang before settling down to raise five children. Oliver studied dance at the Jeni LeGon School and later majored in Drama and Theatre Arts at UCLA. Then in 1961 Oliver made the fateful decision to drop out of school and head East with the song and dance show Kicks and Company. However, the show was not a success and closed in Chicago after only four performances. Oliver found temporary work as a typist in New York and kept her Broadway dreams alive. Oliver’s New York stage debut was off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, where she starred as Virtue along with Lou Gossett Jr as Edgar She played the role of Virtue off and on for two years. She also had the opportunity to star in a one-woman show on CBS Repertory Theatre.
With her small role as “Ortiz’ Girl” in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, Oliver, ended up making movie history in 1964. The Pawnbroker, based on the novel by Jewish American writer Edward Lewis Wallant, stars Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, a bitter pawnbroker in East Harlem who lost his family in the Holocaust. This is actually the first Hollywood film to deal with the Holocaust and its psychological impact on those who survived it. Oliver stars as a prostitute who is also the girlfriend of Nazerman’s Puerto Rican employee Jesus Ortiz. Desperate for money, she offers herself to Nazerman, taking off her clothes and appearing bare-breasted. This was the first time this had EVER occurred in a mainstream Hollywood production. Seeing her naked, Nazerman ends up having flashbacks to his wife being raped by Nazi prison camp guards. He ends up covering “Ortiz’ Girl” with a raincoat and gives her $20. Because the film was dealing with the issue of the Holocaust and its impact, this scene was able to get by the censors because the nakedness was deemed to be integral to the story. It was the first film to get a Motion Picture Association of America Production Code seal of approval that showed bare breasts. The film was scored by the legendary Quincy Jones.
Oliver’s big break came when she landed the role of Helene opposite Gwen Verdon in the Broadway hit Sweet Charity. Oliver auditioned in 1965 for the role only five weeks after surgery to have a tumor removed. The character of Helene is a close friend of the show’s main character Charity; both women work as “hostesses” in the Fan Dango taxi dancehall. Interestingly, the role of Helene is “non-racial”, meaning that it is not specified that she is a Black character. In October 1966, Ebony Magazine published an article about Oliver entitled New Girl on Broadway. The magazine describes her performance as Helene as follows:
Thelma cavorts, smiles, sings, and dances her way through the show, always bubbling with a humourous philosophy that overshadows the sordidness of life.
According to Oliver: “Sweet Charity has been good to me and has changed my life in a wonderful way.” In the September 1966 edition of Jet Magazine, Oliver, when asked about the future of Black actors in the theatre states:
It is certain that as the role of the Negro changes in society, so much it change in the theatre. For the theatre is merely a reflection of society. I feel that the main enemy of the Negro in theatre is fear. Not his fear but the white man’s fear-fear of losing the ‘dollar’. Therefore, I believe the real future of the Negro in the theatre lies in the hands of Negro producers. Negro producers who will take a chance and exploit potentially great Negro talent. Not to just utilize the Negroes who have already been accepted as great, but all of the Negroes out here bubbling over with talent who haven’t had a chance to express themselves.
Oliver would go on to organize a production of Sweet Charity with eight inmates of New York’s Women’s House of Detention, after having only five hours of rehearsal. The women put on a performance of the show for adolescent inmates who were finishing their year at the institution in 1967. But Oliver’s future would not lie with showbiz. In the Ebony Magazine article New Girl on Broadway, it mentions that Oliver studies yoga philosophy. In September 1975, Ebony Magazine published the article Yoga: Something for Everyone, which took a look at how various Black celebrities, including Herbie Hancock and Angela Davis, were embracing yoga and various other Eastern philosophies. This article focused on Thelma Oliver, who by then had changed her name to Krishna Kaur. Kaur, meaning “Princess” is the mandatory last name for female Sikhs after Amrit (Sikh Baptism).
Krishna Kaur studied yoga under the tutelage of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh from India’s Punjab who had established 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) in Los Angeles where he taught Kundalini Yoga. Many of Yogi Bhajan’s American students, including African-Americans like Thelma Oliver, began to convert to Sikhism after observing with admiration the way of life of the Yogi. This would eventually lead to the development of the Sikh Dharma Movement. Yogi Bhajan particularly felt that yoga would be beneficial for African-Americans. In the 1975 Ebony article he says:
Outer help cannot help the handicapped and we’ve got to start admitting that the Black community is handicapped. My personal feeling is that the entire community should check it out.
Krishna Kaur began running the Guru Ramdas Ashram (school) in central Los Angeles, teaching Kundalini Yoga. She also began doing work in the community, sharing the practice of yoga with inner-city students. In the 1975 Ebony article there is a striking picture on page 96 showing Krishna Kaur teaching yoga to students at South Central’s John C. Fremont High School. In the article, Krishna Kaur rejects militant Black activism and states:
The revolution is really one of the mind. Blacks have got to realize where the power really is. The struggle is not on a physical level. It is on the level of the mind.
Krishna Kaur has continued her work bringing yoga to inner-city schools with the creation of the Yoga for Youth. Krishna Kaur describes the work of Yoga for Youth, as well as her own spiritual transformation in the following article posted on lifebyme:
My life changed during the late 60s, just as my career as a performing artist was about to take off. At that time, the Vietnam war was raging, the U.S. Civil Rights struggle had peaked, and more Third World and African Countries were gaining independence from European domination. I was excited about my growing fame in New York – I was in a big Broadway hit, a major film, and a one-woman TV show. However, something else was unfolding inside me at the same time.
I began to feel another calling, outside of the theater, a calling which pulled hard at my psyche. The internal voices continued to drown out my usual excitement about performing. After several months of internal struggle and fear, I learned how to slow down the incessant mental chatter so I could hear the voice in my heart telling me that my true purpose in life was to serve my people in a meaningful way. As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” So I took my love of theater to the streets and began to teach yoga and meditation to kids on the playground, adults recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, gang members, and high school students throughout the Watts area in South Los Angeles.
Every day for the past 40 years, I’ve woken up excited to bring the art and science of Kundalini Yoga to people struggling to make sense out of life – good people, young people, people who have been discarded by mainstream society. They motivate me to get up every morning, enthusiastic about teaching, training, and nurturing them to experience who they really are. My work fulfills me. It gives me hope for the future of humanity and makes me optimistic about stepping into the challenges of these times.
Teaching urban youth through my non-profit Organization, YOGA for Youth, is the most gratifying part of my life. Our youth have every right to be healthy, happy, and productive in their lives. Yet many of them have inherited an environment that doesn’t support such longings. By teaching and training other yoga teachers to reach this very special population, I help plant seeds of greatness that will feed this country and the world, for many generations. When I see the light come on in the eyes of a young person, I know their life will be changed forever. That is worth living for, and that is what keeps me getting up in the morning.
Krishna Kaur is now a world-renowned as a yoga teacher with over 40 years of experience. In 1998, she established the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers which aims to promote the practice of yoga within the Black diaspora, with a particular focus on its power for social transformation. Through the work of this association, she has begun projects in Africa educating locals as Kundalini Yoga teachers. A video of her work in Ghana in 2005 is available online (starting at 4:24 min) as well as a video of actor and Kundalini Yoga student Forest Whitaker sharing a message of support for Krishna Kaur’s work.
In 2000, Krishna Kaur was interviewed for Yoga Journal. In the article Yoga in Black and White, Krishna Kaur addresses the challenge of making yoga relevant for Black people:
“How is yoga going to put food on my table or keep the police from going upside my head?” -these were the kind of questions we were constantly faced with when we first started reaching out to the black community in 1971. But we knew that yoga could help our young people see reality, live reality and find out where their power was, so that they were not always just reacting to their life situations.
I find the remarkable journey of Krishna Kaur (formerly Thelma Oliver) fascinating and a great example of spiritual transformation.
Woyingi Blogger’s Note: This post would not have been possible if I didn’t decide to google “black sikh” one day because I was interested to know if there were any Black converts to the religion of Sikhism.
New Girl on Broadway (Ebony Magazine, October 1966, p. 52) available online from Google Books
New York Beat (Jet Magazine, July 27th 1967, p.62) available from Google Books
Yoga: Something for Everyone (Ebony Magazine, September 1975, p. 96) available online from Google Books
Yoga in Black and White (Yoga Journal, September-October 2000, p. 105) available online from Google Books
Yoga for Youth by Krishna Kaur article available online
Krishna Kaur’s Website
Yoga for Youth’s Website
International Association of Black Yoga Teachers’ Website
Video of Krishna Kaur’s 2005 Trip to Ghana available online (starting at 4:24min)
Video of Forest Whitaker discussing Krishna Kaur’s work available online
Video Interview (2009) with Krishna Kaur available online
Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer
I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.
The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.
In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.
Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.
In 1952, the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.
Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.
Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?
Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.
Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene. He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.
The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:
Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.
The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:
The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.
Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and Asians) and natives (Black Africans).
Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.
The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:
The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.
The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:
Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”
That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:
The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.
The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.
The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.
The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.
The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)
The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online
Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online
I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.
But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!
The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.
There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.
On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.
Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.
After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.
Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).
Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.
Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.
All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.
The Karate Kid (2010) and The Karate Kid (1984)
Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).
The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.
A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town
Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother
The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys
Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.
The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.
The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.
Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.
The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.
Why the Teacher is so Sad
Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China
I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.
There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.
While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.
But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.
The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.
Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.
The Karate Kid (2010) Website
The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page
Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star
Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007
China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press