Afro Samurai, Black Dynamite, and Nick Fury Jr. as Shaft
Representation matters, and how People of Color are represented in speculative fiction and pop culture matters even more. Join a former Naval electrician, father, cosplayer and African American public speaker as we look back at some significant (signifying?) central characters and their contexts.
Oh my! Nothing brings me back to the good old Saturday afternoons of my childhood quite like Blaxploitation films. They would often come on around three or so in the afternoon and would run till five. There was typically some disagreement at first as to whether we were watching a monster movie, horror movie, or Black movie. Surprisingly, this was one of the few times in American history where a large number of movies starring Black people were being made—and making money. Easy to remember for their simple plots and large quantities of action, they were ideal fodder for young impressionable youths such as myself [ 1 ], [ 2 ].
The story always went something like this: the villain takes something or does something to anger the hero. The hero vows vengeance and starts off to find the villain’s headquarters. After the hero busts up several of the villain’s business places, we cut to a scene showing the villain getting angry. “Send in Knuckles!” Enter huge dude that looks like he could easily beat up the hero. The hero and huge dude then meet in an isolated place (warehouse, down by the waterfront, etc.). A long, drawn-out fight ensues. The hero cheats, beats the huge dude, and gets the location of the villain’s lair. Sneaking in late at night, the hero enters a room to find all the remaining minions awaiting his arrival. Immediately jumping into action, he proceeds to beat the snot out of all of them. After the minions are all beaten, the villain arrives, scarier than the huge dude. The hero looks to have no chance. The fight begins and the villain is totally winning. But then the hero gets a lucky shot and cripples the villain. Rather than killing him, the hero demands the thing (money, girl, mortgage) and after receiving it, walks away. Just before he reaches the door the villain makes one last-ditch attempt to beat him, at which point the hero kills the villain. Cue cool music indicating the end of the movie.
This was a significant plot for movies in the 1970s — martial arts films, gangster films, spy films, and later, most video games. Yeah, the ’70s weren’t very imaginative. More to the point, it was the time in American history where somebody somewhere in the movie industry saw the chance to make a quick buck off black people. You may find that hard to believe, but there was actually one brother who had his own theme song — one that everyone knew. You probably know it too [ 3 ].
He’s a Complicated Man
Damn straight. The original Shaft was an instant classic in 1971. Everybody was singing it. Guys were blasting it on their 8-track players—even the white guys. It finished #38 on the best songs in movie history [ 4 ]. You would think that almost 30 years later, three installments of the series would be enough. But apparently not, because in 2000 the fourth installment hit theatres using a modern take on the old classic theme song. The story was quite a bit beefier than the standard ’70s fare, and the people who made it put some real thought into it. It wasn’t a throwaway Blaxploitation film but instead an homage to its roots and a foray into real storytelling for black people in the modern age. Crossing many lines and showing that a movie with Black people in it doesn’t have to be chock full of stereotypes and B level acting, the movie had many A list names in from all over the Hollywood strata. Besides Samuel L. Jackson, it sported Christian Bale, Richard Roundtree (reprising his role as the original Shaft), Lynne Thigpen (Law and Order, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego), Lee Tergesen (Chet from the Weird Science television adaptation), Vanessa Williams (singer, model), Busta Rhymes (rapper), and many more [ 5 ], [ 6 ].
This movie was intense. It was well paced, it had all the action, all the bad-assery, and none of the pandering or condescending attitudes that had come before. There were some colloquialisms in it, to be sure, but nothing over the top and nothing as obvious as the dialogue in some of the ’70s films, where it sounded like they got the whitest guy they knew and told him to write dialogue for a group of black people—some of them were really that bad.
Another pseudo-Blaxploitation film was Black Dynamite (2009). Once again, someone put some serious effort into making a good movie—not just a cash grab. Although the plot was a little silly. OK, a lot silly: the villain planned to emasculate black men by making a beer that gave them small dicks [ 7 ]. This may seem unrealistic at first, but once you see some of the other things that the government actually did (MKUltra, COINTELPRO, the Tuskegee Experiment, the Gay Bomb), it sounds somewhat less crazy. However, this movie, despite spawning two sequels, was nowhere near as good as Shaft. But you could tell they’d done their research and added a significant amount of real-world crazy into it. Unfortunately, most people didn’t know that the government was doing these crazy things, so the movie came out kind of forced and nonsensical despite being based on reality. I watched this movie well after my “don’t trust the man” phase and I understood what they were shooting for. Regrettably, despite being well-researched and true to events going on in America at the time, the movie was too over the heads of most people. Instead, it was taken as a comedy in the same vein as I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, just not as well done. But it got nominated for several awards and even won one of them. Plus, critics gave it decent marks even if the public wasn’t as fond of it. I find it telling that a movie parodying real life events was shot down for not being realistic enough [ 8 ].
The Enigma of Afro Samurai
I find it amusing that two of the movies covered in this article have Samuel L. Jackson in them. He has become the go-to black guy of the new millennium. Need a B.A.M.F. in your movie? Samuel L. Jackson. Need a Black Jedi? Samuel L. Jackson. Need a Black villain? Samuel L. Jackson. Need someone eaten by a shark mid-sentence? Samuel L. Jackson. Is there anything he can’t do? I think not. In this incarnation, he is the Afro Samurai. Afro Samurai is unique in its inception and presentation. Most Asian anime have run with the American stereotype of how black people behave. They see us as clownish, buffoonish, servile, violent, and uneducated. This can be seen in a multitude of anime, but most clearly in Mr. Popo in Dragon Ball Z and Bugnug in Crying Freeman [ 9 ], [ 10 ].
One of the consequences of simply accepting another culture’s interpretation of a group of people is that context is completely lost, resulting in the racism seeming more disjointed. Indeed, there is no reason for them to see black people the way they are portrayed in anime any more than anyone with half a brain thinks that cartoons from the 1940s accurately depict how the Japanese actually acted in real life. So why do they show us the way that they do? Because they don’t write manga and draw anime for themselves; they write and draw them for White America. Indeed, most Japanese people have never been to America, so they have to get their inspiration from somewhere. That “somewhere” is the American media, where American white people are gun-toting violent cowboys and black people are gun-toting violent gang members.
In White America’s haste to make black people look bad, they forgot what they look like to the rest of the world. They have historically instigated a war at least once every ten years with somebody, usually for some nonsense reason, and western petropolitics has consistently disrupted the political structure of the Middle East. The Japanese see the USA as their grandparents saw them: the bloody victors of World War II, the people who invented the most destructive force on Earth. They see America through the eyes of the people who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki [ 11 ]. They see Americans as the people who claimed America through violence against the indigenous people, who intentionally wrote laws designed to punish other Americans for the conditions of their birth.
Now, many years later, the Japanese know what Americans want. They want subservient black people—and if the black people aren’t subservient, they’re violent gang members. They are marketing the violence of America back to the American people through the magic of anime [ 10 ]. And they aren’t far off. It was once pointed out to me that they have a lot of dating games/sims in Japan, and school-focused soap operas. Those come over to America too, but they have a much larger market back in Japan. Why? Because that is what Japan looks like to the Japanese: everyday adventures, going to school, finding the girl/boy of their dreams, and getting married to live happily ever after [ 11 ]. America is a land of violence and danger. Japan is a place of education and contemplation. When the Japanese depict a person in an anime and that person is Japanese, we think they look like a white American. Why? Because that is who they are selling it to. So, it amazes me that the Afro Samurai is a man full of honor and nobility because that is not how the Japanese typically portray us [ 10 ].
So how is it that Afro Samurai has all these noble components that 90 percent of other anime do not have? Simply: one man’s understanding of black people, a man by the name of Takashi Okazaki. With an understanding of both modern hip-hop and the old school revolutionary, Okazaki’s character realizes that he may be one of the few black men left on the planet. As such, he will do nothing to bring dishonor to either himself or his race. And if he should die, his opponent will have nothing but words of praise for his honorably defeated foe. I thought that was a beautiful concept. Indeed, you could easily have envisioned it coming from Malcolm X. This is what it means to get to know the culture of your enemy as well as you know your own culture. You can add richness to the character without losing sight of the reality of the character [ 12 ].
For those who have never seen the show, the first incarnation was about the fight to become #1. It has been said that once you become a great enough swordsman to best #1, the ability to gain the power of #1 will make you a god. Through the death of friends and enemies, as well as learning about himself, he gains depth as a character and skill as a warrior. He eventually—after wading through the blood and entrails of hundreds of enemies—gains what he seeks and ascends to the #1 status. It is a truly incredible moment within the show. With all the things that happened to him and all the people he had to kill, you would think that he would have changed, but instead he has inner peace, so centered that nothing can turn aside his blade or his calm [ 12 ], [ 13 ].
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Oddly enough, even though Afro Samurai and Shaft are on opposite sides of the coin (one emotional and full of rage and one calm and centered), they are both played by the same actor. This reflects the struggle of the Black person in America. There are angry moments and there are calm moments. There are Malcom X moments and there are Martin Luther King Jr. moments. How is it that a man who has had limited exposure to black culture can see this, but the white people who live all around us can’t? I will discuss the empathy gap later, but for Takashi Okazaki it’s most likely because he wants to—and because extending that understanding won’t make him question the entire foundation of his culture. He wants to understand the pain and joy of a people who live at the feet of death—equally balanced between a bullet from a cop and a bullet from a neighbor. He can see the tribal dance in our soul and the raging fire in our hearts.
However, you also have to look at the voice actor. He too has been through trials and tribulations. He was a revolutionary as a young man—the fire in his belly fueling his rage at the unfairness of Jim Crow and how easy it was for the oppressor to hurt those he didn’t know.
Almost all Blaxploitation films have a common theme, usually one black man on a mission to stop the forces of evil (often in the form of a white man). I find this funny because that is exactly how the Black Panthers got started. Police officers would get out of their cars and attack random citizens in all black neighborhoods—because they could. To battle this threat (since that threat was legal at the time), some concerned citizens got together and started carrying shotguns in said neighborhoods. You would be amazed at how few cops want to hang around and beat a black man when surrounded by other angry black men with shotguns in hand. This prompted Ronald Reagan to join forces with the NRA to ban the public carrying of guns in California. American white folks told each other that the Black Panthers were a violent terrorist organization, but they actually started as a neighborhood watch to protect themselves from the man [ 14 ], [ 15 ]. While Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t a member of the Black Panthers, he was part of a budding paramilitary organization when the FBI told his mother if he continued down that road, he would be dead within the year. So, he moved to California instead (not unlike some fresh prince I know) and eventually got into acting [ 16 ], [ 17 ].
This brings us full circle from a violent past where the man is keeping us down, to a marginally less violent present where the man is trying to erase us, into an uncertain future, where the man is an unknown factor. We have grown from our childlike innocence where protecting ourselves required a hero in a black leather duster hunting down cartoonish villains for the betterment and safety of the hood, to a cartoonish plot that outlines some of the things that the government was planning to do, to an actual cartoon that shows us what self-control can do for you if you dedicate yourself and your life to something bigger than yourself and make a concerted effort to be a legend in your heart.
Blaxploitation films were always more than entertainment. To the black community, they were the heroes we never had growing up. They were our Superman and Batman. We didn’t have grand ideas of saving the universe—all we wanted was to protect the six to twelve blocks that represented the place we called home. How childlike we once were; all we really wanted was to sleep safe with our teddy bear. It’s just that our teddy bear was Richard Roundtree, fighting the man for us because he was big and bad enough to do it. I know that to some white people, we are the scary intimidating ones, but all you have to do is look at it from the pages of history. White people are dangerous and all we really wanted was to be safe from you. After all, you have attempted to genocide (that’s right: I used it as a verb) two racial groups and almost succeeded on both counts. The fact that you are targeting black people in the modern age is what makes living in the now so scary, such that the thought of having a personal superhero in our neighborhoods is still so comforting. Lex Luthor is made-up, but Dylann Roof is real. There are some among white people who would gladly throw away their own lives to see the Other—black people, gay people, trans people, Mexican people, Asian people—killed for no other reason than to support their belief in something that is patently false. One would think that the improvement of all people would make the world a better place, but some people only want to see others get torn down. Not even because it would benefit them, but because putting people down and keeping them there seems to be their one goal in life. It is said that they look in the mirror and say, “I am white,” and that is the best thing they can say about themselves—the only thing they can offer to the world about themselves. Blaxploitation films did more than make us smile. They gave, and continue to give us, hope in a time when hope is in very short supply—and I am really hoping they make a comeback.
- “More action-comedy than true Blaxploitation flick, the latest Shaft film in 2019, much like Coming2America, emphasized a generational aspect. This was seeded in Samuel L. Jackson’s prior turn in the role in 2000, and paved the way for this, and his casting as Nick Fury in the MCU.”
- “The 2009 Michael Jai White led film Black Dynamite even inspired two seasons of an animated show, with the same production team as The Boondocks, debuting in 2011. It’s all comedy, but the question is ‘Who’s laughing, and why?’”
Black Dynamite (Film). Directed by Scott Sanders, Apparition, 2009. AND
Thomas, LeSean. Black Dynamite (Series). 1, Adult Swim, 8 Aug. 2011.
- “Ninja Ninja and Afro provide a fascinating psychological analysis of the mind of a black man personally driven into violent confrontations as a means to an end.”
Kizaki, Fuminori. Afro Samurai (Series). 1, Gonzo K.K., 2007. AND Afro Samurai: Resurrection (Film). Directed by Fuminori Kizaki, Gonzo K.K., 2009.
Mr. Zimmerman is a storied problem solver and adventurer, scouted like so many others, by Mr. Gupta back in 2010. Wes quickly distinguished himself through his diligence and his “knack” for assorted creative work. As the firm’s standards evolved, he has quickly grown with them, elevating from junior, to intermediate, and finally Senior Creative staff for The Living Multiverse. Wes’ is also the single voice, outside of Mr. Gupta’s, on the largest quantity of our audio-recorded Roundtables.
- “Blaxploitation Films.” Library, Trustees of Dartmouth College, researchguides.dartmouth.edu/filmgenres/blaxploitation. Accessed 10 Nov. 2021.
- “Blaxploitation.” Separate Cinema: Museum Exhibits. Archived at web.archive.org/web/20190416195116/http://www.separatecinema.com/exhibits_blaxploitation.html. Accessed 6 Dec 2020.
- “AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 SONGS.” American Film Institute, American Film Institute, afi.com/afis-100-years-100-songs. Accessed 10 Nov. 2021.
- ““AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 SONGS.” American Film Institute, American Film Institute, afi.com/afis-100-years-100-songs. Accessed 10 Nov. 2021.
- Shaft. Directed by Gordon Parks, written by Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black, performances by Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1971.
- Shaft (2000). Directed by John Singleton, written by Ernest Tidyman, John Singleton, Shane Salerno, Richard Price, performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright. Paramount Pictures, 2000.
- Black Dynamite. Directed by Scott Sanders, screenplay by Scott Sanders, Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, performances by Michael Jai White, Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, Phyllis Applegate. Destination Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, 2009.
- “Scott, A. O. “Movie Review | Black Dynamite.” The New York Times, The New York TImes Company, 15 Oct. 2009, nytimes.com/2009/10/16/movies/16black.html.
- Tom Jacobs, “Studies Expose ‘Apelike’ Stereotype Among Whites,” Pacific Standard, 22 Mar 2008 (updated 1 Jun 2018). psmag.com/social-justice/studies-expose-apelike-stereotype-among-whites-20708.
- Allan Kastiro, “The Portrayal of Black People in Manga and Anime,” JapanSociology, 19 Oct 2014. japansociology.com/2014/10/19/the-portrayal-of-black-people-in-manga-and-anime.
- Rachel Presser, “Why Do So Many Dating Sim and Narrative Games Take Place in Schools, Anyway?” Medium, 22 Jun 2020. sonictoad.medium.com/why-do-so-many-dating-sim-and-narrative-games-take-place-in-schools-anyway-5d0f05e42384.
- Takashi Okazaki et al. Afro Samurai! Serialized in Nou Nou Hau, Nov 1998–Sep 2002; Tor/Seven Seas Book, 2008.
- “Anime / Afro Samurai,” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 7 May 2020. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Anime/AfroSamurai.
- “The Black Panther Party: Challenging Police and Promoting Social Change.” National Museum of African American History and Culture Blogs, 23 Aug. 2020. nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/black-panther-party-challenging-police-and-promoting-social-change.
- “The Black Panther Party.” National Archives Research Guides, 27 Aug 2020. archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power/black-panthers.
- Dotson Rader. “He Found His Voice (Film actor Samuel L. Jackson),” Parade, 9 Jan 2005. Archived at web.archive.org/web/20081229063210/http://www.parade.com/articles/editions/2005/edition_01-09-2005/featured_0.
- Estera, Christine. “The Surprising Reason Samuel L. Jackson Got into Acting.” Honey, Nine Digital Pty Ltd, 16 June 2021, celebrity.nine.com.au/latest/samuel-l-jackson-how-did-he-get-into-acting-explainer/85d08276-7ddd-4a41-ac82-82ed1c0ad380.