Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bruce Lee as the model minority

To expand Clarissa’s post regarding Fu Manchu vs. the Model Minority, I would like to bring up the question of language. Clarissa wrote, “In true Fu Manchu-mode, Han is an urbane, evil genius who aims to infiltrate Western society and bring about its moral collapse.” The fact that Han is an urbane genius should be explored further. In my view, it is no coincidence that Han’s English is near flawless, with a slick sonorousness that is befitting of a ruler, while Lee’s English is heavily accented and somewhat mousy to boot. Lee’s character never has the booming vocal presence of Han, and his exaggerated screaming is at times cringe-worthy.

The point of such a distinction is that the figure of the Oriental madman, as an emblem of the Yellow Peril, is threatening for the very reason that he is able to blend into white society. He is capable, if he chooses, of threatening the cultural exclusivity of white assimilation. By the same token, the model minority is never threatening because he is always marked by demeanor and speech as ineluctably foreign. It is reminiscent of early gangster films, in particular Scarface (1932), starring Paul Muni as the titular character. In that film, Scarface represents a dangerous model of assimilation—he abandons his first-generation Italian mother, speaks a slangy, urban English, and shortens his given name Antonio to simply Tony. Tony Calmonte buys all the luxuries of American life, including an Anglo girlfriend. Han, incidentally, also has a blonde white woman as his closest assistant. About midway through Scarface, we are shown a citizens’ meeting in which various representatives of an urban community gather to discuss Calmonte’s crime spree. The representative from the Italian-American community, speaking only at the end when the Anglos have had their bits, shakes his fist and rattles off “That’sa true-a, he’sa disgrace-a to my people!” It is a typical device in these films to contain the threat of the alien by marking the “ideal” ethnic citizen with traits that are foregrounded and superficially apparent. In being largely incapable of speech and more or less inhuman in fighting prowess (Bruce Lee is never seriously challenged in any of his matches), Lee is inadvertently playing into a construction of racial otherness that is contained by whiteness.

This is the same sort of contained racialization that allowed whites to appreciate non-white fighters like Joe Louis, whose manager John Roxborough forced to be on his “best behavior” at all times, outlined by the following seven commandments:


1. He was never to have his picture taken along with a white woman.

2. He would never go into a nightclub alone.

3. There would be no soft fights.

4. There would be no fixed fights.

5. He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent.

6. He was to keep a dead pan in front of the cameras.

7. He was to live and fight clean.

Joe Louis was loved by whites for the reason that he was not Jack Johnson, who held the championship from 1908-1915. Johnson lived large, boasted, boozed around, and married white women, essentially living his life just to piss off the white man. In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee is Joe Louis to Han’s Jack Johnson.

This is not to say that Bruce Lee's other films are devoid of conscious radicalism. This one is just a real stinker, even though it has some of the greatest martial arts sequences ever filmed.

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