Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)
While scouring the cheap DVD bin at my local Giant Tiger, I struck gold. I found one of my all-time favourite films, Flirting (1991). It was only $2! Flirting is definitely one of my “Top 5 Desert Island Films”. I’ve loved it since the first time it played on Canadian Cable when I was about twelve or thirteen.
So, why did an Australian Film set in 1965 at a Boarding School speak to me so deeply as a tween?
Starring: Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts
Written and Directed by John Duigan
Flirting is the sequel to Australian writer and director John Duigan’s 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke (a film I also adore). It is narrated by the central character of both films Danny Embling (Noah Taylor). Danny has been sent away to boarding school in New South Wales by his parents in the hopes he won’t become a delinquent after the events that occurred in The Year My Voice Broke. At boarding school, 17 year old Danny is the butt of jokes because of his stutter and long nose (for which he is nicknamed “Bird”). He describes life in Boarding School as follows:
One thing about boarding school, 24 hours a day you’re surrounded. Either you abandoned yourself and became a herd animal or you dug a cave deep into your head and skulked inside, peering through your eye sockets.
His only friend is Gilbert, who likes to smoke a pipe and is hardly any more popular than Danny himself. Danny looks down on his fellow classmates as imbeciles and oafs and prefers to read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, as he is a teenage boy, he does long for female companionship and takes as much pleasure as the other boys at any opportunity given to see the girls from Cirencester Ladies’ College, the girls’ boarding school on the opposite side of the lake.
At a rugby match, Danny’s clever remark that he is only interested in rugby from an anthropological viewpoint because it’s a mating ritual catches the attention of Thandiwe Adjewa, played by the amazing Black British actress Thandie Newton, who has just arrived from school in England. Her father, a Ugandan, is lecturing at university in Canberra. Thandiwe has befriended Melissa and Janet (played by Naomi Watts) but she also sees herself as “above” her fellow students and has to put up with their racism which includes taunts about bananas and Ugandans being only able to compete in the Zoo Olympics. At a debate between the two schools in which Danny, despite his stutter, is able to deliver an eloquent speech on how rugby exemplifies the epitome of human endeavour and Thandiwe throws the debate by quoting the song Tutti Fruitti Au Rutti, the two finally get a chance to speak and Thandiwe invites Danny to the Boarders’ Dance.
Danny ends up not being able to attend the dance because his headmaster thinks his hair is too long. Thandiwe breaks the rules by going to look for him and the two sneak away to his dormitory. Thandiwe explains that although her father is Ugandan, her mother, who is deceased, was Kenyan and had an English mother. After finding a copy of an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Intimacy and Other Stories on his bed, Thandiwe tells Danny that she met Sartre in Paris.
Danny: What did you say to Sartre?
Thandiwe: I suggested marriage was a doomed institution.
Danny: What did he say?
Thandiwe: He agreed most people marry to please their parents or society.
Danny: Not keen on marriage yourself?
Thandiwe: I see so many terrible ones. People just stop communicating. My father and stepmother are brilliant communicators. They hardly ever talk to each other these days, except in public. Anyway, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone complex enough to keep me interested. I lose interest in people. I imagine they’re far more fascinating than they are. So I’m always disappointed.
Danny: Hard Life.
It’s clear that Thandiwe and Danny are well matched as they both think that are too smart for their surroundings. Thandiwe kisses Danny and demands that he write her. Thandiwe is punished by the headmistress for leaving the dance without permission and is given chores by the prefect, Nicola Radcliffe, played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after, Thandiwe’s letter to Danny is taken by Burke, one of Danny’s constant tormentors and the school’s boxing champion, and is read allowed to his classmates. In the letter, Thandiwe writes: “I’m told your nickname is Bird. Well I like long noses it means your well-endowed-with brains of course”. Word of the letter spreads and Thandiwe ends up getting teased about it. She doesn’t believe Danny when he calls her, pretending to be her father and putting on an “African” accent, and tells her that the letter was stolen. She refuses to partner with him when the two schools work together to put on a school musical. Danny is determined to win Thandiwe back and fains illness in order to take a boat across the lake and find Thandiwe at her school. While at dance class, Nicola Radcliffe explains to Thandiwe that the letter really was stolen. Thandiwe regrets not trusting Danny. By this time, Danny has gotten into the school by climbing into the dormintory window of some of the College’s younger students. They help him find Thandiwe and the two are reunited.
In a fascinating scene which is accompanied by a montage of “African” images from the 40s, 50s and 60s in print and on film, Danny reflects about his knowledge of where Thandiwe comes from:
When I started thinking about Africa I realized that the only images I knew were from old annuals, Tarzan comics and Hollywood movies. Cannibals with bones through their noses, lions tearing the throats out of antelopes, and a lot of wondrous, moving words like Limpopo, Zambezi, Mombasa, Tanganyika.
As Danny and Thandiwe’s relationship grows, he gets to learn about Africa from Thandiwe’s perspective, although he doesn’t really take it all in. He reflects:
Thandiwe started telling me about Africa as she knew it. How her mother was killed during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. How her father wrote books about African nationalism and the problems created as the colonial government scrambled to get out. There had been terrible times for the last few years: The Belgian Congo, Zanzibar, Angola, Kenya, places I’d barely heard of. Often, I never really heard what she said. I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting ‘cause sometimes there would be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastics in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.
While getting ready to perform the musical, the boys discover that they can see the girls getting changed and Burke decides to take a picture. Danny attacks Burke and their fight is broken up by their prefect who proposes that they instead box each other later in the week. Danny and Burke end up boxing and of course Danny is beaten severely. At one point, after sustaining hard blows to the head by Burke, Danny hallucinates that he can see Jean-Paul Sartre in the crowd of students watching the fight. Gilbert and Thandiwe take Danny to the school’s infirmary.
After the performance of the musical, Danny introduces his parents to Thandiwe and her parents. Danny’s mother is obviously shocked and unsettled to be meeting Africans but his father is quite charmed by Milton Adjewa, Thandiwe’s father. Danny and Thandiwe meet later that night and make out in an amusing and awkward scene. Things seem to be going so well for the young couple but the political crisis building in Uganda leads Thandiwe’s parents to return to the country. Thandiwe fears that her father, who has written about government corruption in the country might be a target as he has many enemies. She is right and soon after her father’s return, he is arrested. Thandiwe feels he must return to the country in order to look after her younger brother and sister as her stepmother might also be arrested. Lying about her true departure date, Thandiwe leaves the school a day early in order to spend the night in a motel with Danny. The two get a chance to make love but soon after they are caught by school officials.
Because of his indiscretion, Danny is expelled from St. Albans and returns home to work in his father’s pub. Thandiwe regularly writes him letters from Uganda. In the letters, Danny learns about the deteriorating situation in Uganda, an army general named Idi Amin, and of Thandiwe’s father’s execution. Then the letters stop.
People have speculated that John Duigan’s Danny Embling films are autobiographical. This is not the case, as Duigan explained in a 1996 interview:
To some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities on various things, but it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything.
I really love the main theme The Lark Ascending, a composition by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams for violin and orchestra which Duigan uses in both Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke. According to John Duigan, he chose this theme because he thought it reflected Danny’s adolescent yearning.
I watched Flirting during a very dark and troubling time in my life. I had dropped out of junior high and was spending my days watching TV, listening to Ottawa’s Classic Rock Station Chez 106 (This is how I became a fan of Led Zeppelin) and wondering why I was such a freak. I would eventually return to high school but have to withdraw and receive visiting teachers because my social anxiety and depression made attending regular school unbearable. Ever since I can remember, I had felt like an outsider, a misfit and I couldn’t relate to children my age. At the beginning of the film, when Danny talks about digging a cave in his head and skulking inside, I felt that he was describing what I had been doing my whole life. I longed to find someone who would understand and appreciate me. I wanted to fall in love and do pretty much what other teenagers wanted to do when they were in love. But my prospects seemed so slim. The film Flirting gave me hope that I could find love with someone as awkward and intellectually precocious as myself.
Thandie Newton, who was only 16 when she starred in Flirting, began a romantic relationship with John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. She has described the relationship, which lasted for six years, as “traumatic”. In a 2006 interview she stated: “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.” In a 2009 interview she stated: “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it (the relationship) but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone that age when you are so much older? I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now.” Despite this rather disturbing revelation, I still love Flirting, even if some parts of it now seem a bit pervy in light of Newton’s relationship with Duigan.
If my older wiser self could speak to my younger lonelier miserable self, I would tell her that “it gets better” and that friendship is really what you should be looking for. For lonely loners who are too smart for their own good, friendship can be far harder to find and maintain than romance. I was able to get into a romantic relationship at 17 with a 25 year old before I had any real friends. This was disastrous and pretty traumatic. But soon after, I made two of my dearest friends, who I’m proud to say are still in my life after all these years. So, for all you lovely lonely losers out there like I was, watch Flirting, it’s a film made for us, but make good friends before you go out trying to find love.
Interesting Trivia: Flirting won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The film ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies and The Guardian included Flirting in its list of the Five Best Boarding School Movies. John Duigan would go on to direct Thandie Newton in The Journey of August King (1995) and The Leading Man (1996) starring Jon Bon Jovi.
American Trailer for Flirting available online
Interview (1996) with John Duigan available online
Interview (2006) with Thandie Newton available online
Interview (2009) with Thandie Newton available online
Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies gallery available online
Top of the Class: The Five Best Boarding School Movies 2009 article in The Guardian available online
A List of other great Australian Coming of Age Films courtesy of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art available online
Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather
While researching Buffalo Soldiers, I stumbled upon an interview by Evangeline Buell, a Filipina American activist, discussing her grandfather, an African American who had fought in the Philippines. My knowledge of Filipino History isn’t what it should be so this interview and my subsequent research was really an eye opener.
The Spanish American War began in 1898, and was fought in several Spanish colonies around the globe, including the Philippines. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in December 1898, and the United States took over control of the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Filipino Nationalists, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, were not happy about having to trade one colonizer for another and resisted American occupation. In February 1899, these Filipino insurgents (insurectos) began attacking U.S. Troops. Thus began the Philippine American War (1899 to 1902). During these wars, African American soldiers were recruited to fight for the United States in the segregated Black regiments of the 24th and 25th Infantry, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and African American National guardsmen.
Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell is a leading Filipina American writer and activist living in San Francisco, California. She is the co-founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s East Bay Area Chapter and is the retired Events Coordinator of the University of California-Berkeley International House. She has written books about Filipino American history, including a memoir about her family, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family (T’Boli Publishing, 2006). Her family immigrated to the United States in 1928 and she was one of the few Filipinos growing up in West Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s, a difficult time for Asian Americans. She remembers seeing signs stating “No Filipinos or dogs allowed” posted at restaurants. During World War II, she had to wear a button that declared “I am a loyal Filipino” in order to avoid harassment if she was mistaken for Japanese.
This memoir also records the life of her grandfather, Ernest Stokes, an African American who came to the Philippines as a Buffalo Soldier during the Spanish American War and stayed during the subsequent Philippine American War. According to Buell, her grandfather joined the military in order to escape racism in the American South. In a reading from her memoir for a 2007 podcast of San Francisco Chronicle’s Pinoy Exchange commemorating Black History Month, Buell states:
My grandfather Ernest Stokes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1870. Grandpa Stokes wanted to escape from the South where he had experienced oppressive racial prejudice. In 1898, he found an opportunity to leave for an overseas assignment, hoping for a life free of racial discrimination in another country. He responded to a call for volunteers for the Spanish American War in the Philippines and travelled with a group from Tennessee to San Francisco to receive training at the Presidio Army Camp. The windy and cold military base on the scenic hills overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Grandpa Stokes and the other Tennessee volunteers would cross the largest and deepest sea in the world to fight a war in a land they knew nothing about and later on in life Grandpa Stokes explained to his second wife, Roberta: “We had to leave this deplorable country even if it meant facing the unknown, at least we had a chance for a new destiny, perhaps a better life than here.” Grandpa Stokes was among 6,000 African American soldiers who were sent to the Philippines in 1898 to fight in the Spanish American War. Upon arriving in the Philippines he became part of the 9th Calvary of the United States Army. My grandfather became a sergeant in that unit consisting of African American members who were called Buffalo Soldiers.
But he, as well as his fellow Black soldiers, still faced discrimination in the US Military. As Buell explains: “He was sent out by the Caucasian soldiers into the front line to take the bullets from the opposite side. It was only their cunning and their street-wise defiance that they were able to not get shot.”
Buell says that Stokes loved life in the Philippines, including its people, culture and food. While in the Philippines, Stokes, like many other Buffalo Soldiers, married a Filipina woman, Maria Bunag, Buell’s grandmother and lived in a Filipino village. They had three daughters, including Felicia, Buell’s mother. According to Buell, Stokes was accepted by most of Maria’s family. Maria died in 1917, and Stokes could not raise his daughters and serve in the military at the same time so he sent one sister to live with her grandmother, and two of the sisters, including Felicia, to live with their mother’s cousins. This was a troubling time for these Black Filipina sisters. These relatives were not accepting of these darker-skinned and coarse-haired girls. According to Buell, her mother and aunt were treated like servants and beaten. They were also repeatedly raped by older male cousins. This went on for five years, until their father discovered what was going on and rescued them.
Buell’s grandfather later remarried another Filipina, Roberta Dungca. It is from Roberta that Buell learned about her grandfather’s life in the Philippines and his early life in the United States. According to Roberta, Stokes refused to shoot Filipino insurgents because he understood their resistance to American colonial rule. Many African American soldiers felt torn about fighting Filipinos and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, were outspoken in their opposition to the Philippine American War.
After living in the Philippines for 25 years, Stokes returned to the United States with all his children and Dungca. They settled in West Oakland, California in 1928.
Buell remembers her grandfather fondly. She stated that:
…her favorite memories are of her grandfather bouncing her, her younger sister and their cousin on his knee while he counted to them in Cantonese and sang in Tagalog. Stokes learned eight languages while in the Philippines, including Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and various Philippine dialects.
Stokes died in 1936 and is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. According to Buell:
The relations between the African Americans and the Filipinos, the beginning of that, was in the Philippines. … And it’s important today in terms of Filipinos getting to know black Americans and (black people) getting to know the Filipinos — to know that we have had that relationship way back, a hundred years ago.
Filipina activist Buell writes family history to understand herself (2007 article available online)
Buffalo Soldier came to Philippines to fight, instead found new way of life (2007 Audio Interview available online)
The Philippine War: A Conflict of Conscience for African Americans (article available online from the National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco Website)
White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902 by S. Brown (essay 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
Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.
The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.
The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.
Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.
When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.
Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:
What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.
In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.
The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website
Dedicated to all the lovely, professional but single women of colour in Ottawa, my friends in particular.
I remember once being told by a professional man of colour how great Ottawa was because there were so many beautiful, intelligent, well educated, professional and desperately single women of colour to choose from!
Why? Well, considering that the main employer here in Ottawa is the Federal Government and that corporation is overwhelmingly populated by women of colour the competition for the few men of colour in this city is pretty high.
Now, you might suggest that the other main employer in the city, the High Tech Industry, overwhelmingly populated by men of colour, would make up for this. But have you met the guys of colour who work in High Tech? If these guys are interested in an animate object with whom to spend their lives with they have probably asked Mommy and Daddy to import her from back home already*.
Unless someone writes a memo to Harper convincing him to hire more eligible men of colour for the public service because sexually frustrated female employees of colour have been scientifically proven to be less productive, the gender gap in this city isn’t likely to change any time soon.
So, what’s a single women of colour stuck in Ottawa supposed to do: Consider Something New.
When the film Something New, in which a Black professional woman hooks up with a White working-class man came out Oprah dedicated a whole show to the issue of Black women dating White men. Although many of the Black men interviewed lamented that seeing a Black woman end up with a White man was like “losing a sister” the sad conclusion was that considering that Black women were doing much better professionally than Black men and often the Black men that were professionally successful were marrying White women there just weren’t enough brothers to go around.
In other communities of colour, with the prevalence of importing wives from back home*, particularly in the Arab and South Asian communities, even women from communities where men and women might be equally successful professionally are finding it hard to find a man. Added to this that often in these communities daughters come with marriageablity expiry dates, the pressure on these women to bring home a good boy from the community as soon as possible can push some over the edge.
Many of my wonderful, professional and single female friends of colour complain about being lonely, horny, and fed-up with their mothers and aunties asking them when they are going to get married.
All I have to say to my desperate sisters of colour is this: There are perfectly eligible White men out there ready and willing to fulfill your needs.
Yes, I said it, WHITE MEN!
I think that you should all consider dating White men.
Or at least, don’t write-off the idea of dating a White man if a nice enough one comes along and seems interested in you.
The majority of men in this city who are professionals are White and you are just going to have to accept the fact that you might end up with one of them as tragic as that may seem.
I know, I know, you have many objections to this suggestion.
Let’s explore some of these, shall we?
A White Man Can’t Understand Me, My Culture, My Experiences of Racism, The Struggle of My People, etc.
Yes, you are right. A White man will never get what it is to be a person of colour.
He will have to begin to challenge his White Privilege if he hasn’t started doing this already.
You might have to teach him how to use chopsticks and discover the joys of chicken feet. You might have to teach him how to properly pronounce “Jaan”.
You’ll have a lot of history to teach him and maybe a few new languages to boot.
But if he is serious about being with you he will be willing to learn.
Besides, are you really guaranteed by being with a man from your own community that you will be understood? Although, your cultural context is deeply integral to your development as an individual so are many other things that a man may not understand just because he’s from the same community. And I don’t think a White man is any less able to understand these things about you, particularly if it’s these things that attracted him to you in the first place.
My Parents Want Me To Bring Home A Good (Add Ethnicity Here) Boy
I understand that you want your parents to approve of your future spouse if you wish to stay close to your families but after a certain time (particularly if you end up passing your marriageablity expiry date) your parents will probably just be happy that you are getting married and aren’t going to end up alone and not giving them any grandchildren.
You also might want to disabuse your parents of the idea that there are actually that many “Good (Add Ethnicity Here) Boys” out there. Parents really need to become more aware of the nastiness these boys are getting up to. I’m often amused by the persistent idea that White men are drug addled, lazy, sex maniacs whereas boys of colour are sober, hard-working virgins. I’d take a drug-addled, lazy, sexually maniacal White boy over his counterpart of colour any day. At least the White boy doesn’t lie to his mother’s face about what he was really doing on Saturday night!
I Don’t Want to Be Exotified by Some Pervy White Dude
Sections of the Porn Industry are exclusively dedicated to fulfilling White guys racist sexual fantasies about women of colour.
I remember when dating in high school this was a particular problem for me as a Black woman. I’d start dating some seemingly innocuous White boy and all of a sudden I’d discover that he expected me to be a sex-crazed jungle cat ready to shake my booty in his face and call him Big Papa.
But the sad reality is that many of you are just as likely to be exotified by perves in your own communities.
As a lighter-skinned Black woman, I’m always a bit freaked out if a Black guy can’t stop making comments about how light I am (I can usually get him to cool it by elaborating on how short and nappy my hair is). My Desi friends who are lighter-skinned have attracted Desi boys particularly desperate for a “fair-skinned” bride. Or the opposite happens, a light-skinned Black or Desi boy seems totally into you because you are darker than him and he hopes hooking up with you will alleviate his anxieties about his own authenticity as a man of colour.
If you feel you are being exotified than just tell that White dude that you have no intention of being his Geisha or reenacting the Kama Sutra with him and that he should just download some porn because no real life woman of colour is going to want anything to do with him.
I’m Hindu, Sikh, Muslim etc. My Religion is Important To Me and I Want to Raise My Children In It
I’m not sure about all religious communities but most communities allow for conversion.
Now getting your White Boy to convert is another story. Try to make sure that you don’t date a guy who is a total atheist (No disrespect to atheists, some of my best friends are atheists, but you must admit you people are hard to convert). So, if he at least has some belief in some abstract higher power just start trying to convince him that this higher power he’s describing sounds an awful lot like your particular deity.
Hindus and Buddhists will have less trouble doing this because your religions are associated with positive spiritual values here in the West like peace and tranquility. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to the selflessness of the Buddha? Who wouldn’t want to put pictures of the adorable Baby Krishna up around their house?
If you are Muslim, however, your job is much harder. Islam is certainly not the most popular religion and your average White guy doesn’t want to risk ending up on the no-fly list just for a woman. But there are some White guys who would and if a White guy is willing to risk ending up on the no-fly list for you, you know he’s the one.
We Muslims, we love to convert people. So dating a non-Muslim White Guy isn’t even dating-It’s Dawah!!! If your parents or community members give you a hard time ask them: Are You Against the Spreading of Islam? Of course they’re not.
In order to get your White boy to start warming up to Islam get him to read a lot of Rumi.
Also, talk a lot about how in Islam sex between married people is a totally guilt-free spiritual act. Dig up all those Muslim marriage manuals that advocate fulfilling a wife’s sexual desires. You’re teaching him about Islam and ensuring that you have a satisfying sex life all at the same time! Try to bring up sex as often as possible in the context of your religion. This way you are associating Islam with positive, warm, fuzzy things as opposed to all those negative images of bloodthirsty terrorists blowing up school children and flying planes into tall buildings. These are desperate times and, as they say, they call for desperate measures. Besides, if you yourself are committed to remaining chaste until your wedding night and you want this White boy to wait for you, you’ll need some way of channeling all the pent up sexual energy otherwise something will explode and it won’t be a suicide bomber.
Okay, Okay I’ll Consider A Guy Who’s Not of Colour But I Don’t Want Some Straight Up White Guy!
Fine, there are non-Straight Up White Guys available to you: Jews, Armenians, Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, and a wide variety of Latin Americans.
But remember, this is Ottawa and there aren’t many of these men to go around.
Seeing as they are so much hotter than your average Straight Up White Guy, they are in very high demand.
So, you go girl, but keep your eye on the Straight Up White Guy!
* In this essay I don’t mean to offend any woman who has been chosen by her husband or his family from a foreign country. Actually, I admire your bravery because moving to an entirely new country to be with a man requires a great deal of strength and fortitude and is a risk I would never be capable of taking.