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
At the opening of the film girlhood by Liz Garbus, viewers are informed that the rates of young girls being charged with violent crimes is on the increase in the United States. Well, it’s also said to be on the increase here in Canada. As much of my work is with teenage girls in high school, this issue is both personally and professionally relevant to me, however, I often wonder if girls are really becoming more violent or if our society is just admitting something that has always gone on but we didn’t know how to label because of our stereotypical image of girls and women as somehow less aggressive than men. I don’t think girls are really less aggressive than boys, nor do I think we should somehow pathologize aggressive and violent behaviour by girls but see it as a given among boys. What is more important is that both boys and girls develop a sense of agency in relation to their aggressive behaviour, and take responsiblity for the consequences of their violent actions.
girlhood tells the story of Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen. We follow them over a period of about three years. We are introduced to them while they are incarcerated in Waxter Juvenile Detention Center, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Shanae is 14 and has served two years at Waxter for the murder of her friend, a crime she committed when she as only 12 years old. Megan is 16 and is in Waxter for Assault with a deadly weapon.
Early in the film it is apparent that Shanae doesn’t really feel remorseful for the murder of her friend. At one point she tells her parents that the girl she murdered actually has it easy because she’s just dead whereas Shanae is suffering because she is in detention. Thankfully, her parents point out that being dead is definitely WORSE than being in detention! Shanae’s ability to feel remorse for her actions is seen as a key benchmark that needs to be achieved before she can leave Waxter.
Megan, we are told, has been in 11 foster houses by the age of 16. Her mother is a heroin addict and is herself often in and out of jail on prostitution charges. Over the years, Megan has run away from most of her foster homes in a desperate attempt to reunite with her mother. Megan admits that when she leaves Waxter she will only be going back to another foster home. When we meet Megan at Waxter it is clear that she is something of a troublemaker but probably more out of boredom than any malice (Garbus in her DVD commentary says that Megan is actually a very respectful young woman and that one of her main criticism of the Waxter Facility is that there is not really much structured activities for the inmates.). It is also quite clear that the staff at Waxter have a special affection for her despite her antics. At one point, Megan states that she feels that she is an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body because she has so much to regret. In contrast to Shanae, who has a great deal of family love and support, Megan only receives letters from her mother sporadically, and in one scene in the film desperately wants to call her grandmother to see if she is going to visit her. During this scene Megan whines that nobody loves her, she seems to be half joking but one has to wonder. Megan admits to having a special relationship with a fellow inmate which seems to be of a romantic nature. At Waxter, Megan’s need for attention and affection, her vulnerablity, are on display for everyone to see. She is also silly and childish which is what you expect for a girl her age. But one is left wondering how this silly girl took it upon herself to attack another young woman with a box cutter (the main reason why she is locked up). Is the Megan inside Waxter the same Megan outside Waxter?
Liz Garbus has made other films about life in prison, such as the Academy Award Winning The Farm: Angola. Before starting the film girlhood, she actually meant to do a film about young men in juvenile detention centres because from her work on the film Angola, she was intrigued and disturbed by how many of the inmates there said they had learned the tricks of their trade from their experiences in juvenile detention. But while researching junvenile detention centres she met Shanae who suggested that she make a film about girls. In her commentary on the film, available on the DVD, Garbus admits to being struck by Shanae’s intelligence and cutesiness (she was wearing pigtails at the time) and then shocked to discover that Shanae was locked up for murder! Garbus followed Shanae’s suggestion and was determined to include her in her film. She then had to go about getting permission to film. The extent of Garbus’ access to the girls while in detention is remarkable (she states that she eventually had keys to the inside of the Waxter facility because the staff got tired of her and her crew’s constant requests to get into different rooms). Garbus remarks that the structure within Waxter allows the girls to actually be girls. This comment is echoed by Mr. Godsey, a staff at the facility, who states in the film that although the girls don’t like structure they need it because they haven’t had it at home. He also states that although many of the girls leave Waxter and go on to live lives free of crime, others’ lives deteriorate when they get back home because of the dangers and tempations of life in their often crime-filled neighbourhoods (remember most of the inmates at Waxler are coming from Baltimore!).
So what will be the fate of Shanae and Megan when they leave Waxter?
The second part of Garbus’ film follows Shanae and Megan’s lives after leaving Waxter. Shanae moves into a lower security halfway house because her mother does not feel ready to take her back home. Megan, after a failed escape attempt from Waxter, goes into another foster home.
It is during Shanae’s interview to get into the lower security facility that we learn that she was also gang raped by five men. We have already learned that starting at the age of 10, Shanae began drinking alcohol heavily, was running away from home and having unprotected sex. This led to a pregnancy at the age of 11 which her mother arranged for her to have terminated because it was feared that because of Shanae’s heavy-drinking the baby would have fetal alcohol syndrome. Garbus in her commentary points out that Shanae does not believe that the gang rape should be seen as some sort of excuse for her murdering her friend. As the film progresses we see Shanae go from feeling very little remorse or even understanding of the consequences of her violent actions, to feeling real remorse and a sense of responsiblity. A lot of this seems due in part to her mother Antoinette’s support.
One of the most educational parts of the film I felt was the example set by Antoinette. She demonstrates that you can support and love your child while not making excuses for them. Too often, I have seen parents make excuses for their children and this I feel has actually stunted their children’s moral growth and led to them continuing to commit violent acts. Antoinette refuses to allow Shanae back home until she is convinced that her daughter has really changed and has gotten all the help that she needs. I think this is key to Shanae’s eventual success. One may wonder how Antoinette could be a good parent considering all the trouble Shanae got into at such a young age. But if the viewer pays close attention to the film and Liz Garbus’ commentary we learn that Shanae’s mother was a single parent working two jobs trying to support Shanae and move her family out of the projects. Unfortunately, this meant that she wasn’t around to supervise Shanae. Shanae started drinking with her cousin. Sometimes, it is members of our own families that expose our children to drugs and alcohol, something I have often seen growing up in my own neighbourhood. Antoinette does her best in extremely difficult circumstances.
In contrast to Shanae’s successes, when out of Waxter, Megan soon runs away from her foster home with no consequences (despite the fact that staying in foster care is a requirement of her patrol), couch surfs for a while and eventually gets her own place with her cousin. You watch Megan go from being a silly little girl at Waxter to being a bitter, angry and hard woman so quickly that you can’t help but be reminded of Mr. Godsey’s point about these girls needing structure. The structure of Waxter allowed Megan to be a child, the streets provide no structure and force her to be more of an adult than most adults ever have to be.
Garbus remarks during her DVD commentary that she was torn while making this film because her ultimate conclusion during her experience following these girls’ lives was that Family Matters. As a left-wing filmmaker, she worried that this appeared to be some sort of right-wing Family Values advocate conclusion. But the reality is that Shanae, because of the support of her family, is able to overcome the trauma of her childhood and the impact of her crime and graduate from high school and go on to community college whereas Megan, without really any family support, is only able to struggle, her greatest achievement being that she doesn’t return to crime or become a hardcore drug addict. In my own opinion, considering that Megan has to do all this on her own, hers is the greater achievement.
I don’t think it’s a right-wing conclusion to say that everyone needs family and that strong families raise strong, healthy, happy children who can grow up to be adults who can contribute positively to our society. But not everyone has families like this. So the question is to what degree do we all have to support children whose families can’t? This is where politics comes in and things get ugly.
I remember being struck at the end of the film that one of the staff at Waxter came to Shanae’s home to congratulate her on graduating and see her off to the prom. The staff person made it clear that she wasn’t there on official business. She was there as a member of the community and Shanae was a child of the community and therefore her child.
Profile of Liz Garbus by the Center for Social Media
Video Clip from girlhood
Movie Fire Craker Website (Liz Garbus’ Film Website)