Racebending.com was lucky enough to get a screening of The Karate Kid
earlier this week.
We've been getting a lot of questions about the movie, especially given its controversial titling and its setting in China. I can't speak for everyone on staff
, but here's my impression of the film.On the title:
Really unfortunate, and obviously a result of meddling on the part of some marketing head. The film really should go by its international title, The Kung Fu Kid
, but some Hollywood jerk wanted to profit off the original brand.
The film has obvious lineage from The Karate Kid
- they used the same screenwriter and the plot follows the arc of the original perfectly, almost note by note.
However, it's no excuse for waving off the distinction between karate (Japanese) and kung fu (Chinese). The film itself emphasizes that kung fu is different
(in fact, implying it's superior). But the title should reflect this, just as the film does.On the portrayal of China:
The Chinese government provided substantial funding to this film and it shows. The film pays great attention to the beauty and grandeur of Chinese culture, architecture, and history - while also dispelling the misconception of China as an ancient, third-world nation. China is shown to be a bustling modern marvel.
The people are shown to be friendly, with Chinese youths playing alongside the elderly in parks decked out with the latest equipment. Aside from the grade school bullies, there's no sign of crime or discord anywhere.
The film - in my opinion - portrays China as better than it actually is. I was particularly struck by how welcoming and open everyone was to foreigners... especially ones of African descent, such as Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mother. Jaden's school also had a large number of foreign students, which I wouldn't expect.
There's also a huge stigma against Chinese girls dating foreigners that is largely ignored, or at least made extremely ambiguous.That being said
, I think this is forgivable. Most American films pretend that racial discord doesn't exist in this country - and many portray America as the world's greatest country, devoid of any political problems and largely devoid of crime.
Your personal concern about this portrayal of China may vary, depending on how connected you feel with Chinese politics, etc.On the lead characters:
I'm overjoyed that there is an African American child actor headlining a major Hollywood film... and it's not being marketed as a "black film."
Yes, Jaden Smith got the gig because of his parents - Will and Jada Smith are the top two producers. Yes, this smacks of nepotism. Yes, it sucks that the only way a black child actor can headline a film is to be descended from the #1
box office star in America.
On the other hand: Jaden proves that he is an incredibly talented actor, who can carry a film just as well as the white child actors Hollywood is more inclined to hire. (Actually, he's far better
than the vast majority of Hollywood child actors.)
I think that's a step forward, if only a small one.
Jackie Chan's character is incredibly well-rounded. In fact, he has one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of his career in this film. For decades now, he's wanted to prove he can act dramatically - that he's not just a funny guy who does his own stunts.
After seeing this film, I back him up all the way. Jackie Chan's got the acting chops.
A small note: I was really happy with how they portrayed the black characters' hair in this film. There are so many negative messages in the media about black hair, constant pressure to straighten it out, make it look and act more "white."
It's hard for me to comment too much on that since I'm not African American... maybe I'm making too big a deal out of it, but I liked how they handled it.On the portrayal of Chinese people:
The bullies actually have some depth. They're not just faceless, evil, hateful monsters who are out to get the heroic American. They have moments of humanity.
The one who receives the blame is their instructor, who is portrayed as an evil sociopath - the perfect foil to Jackie Chan's character.
What would have made the film perfect
is the portrayal of a friendly Chinese male youth. The end result is slightly flawed: a bunch of misguided (but still vicious) bullies attacking an American kid, with a Chinese girl for a love interest.
And there was the usual "one month of really hard training makes the foreigner better than the locals at their own tradition" thing.
Slightly flawed - but not nearly enough to ruin the film for me. It came across as a tad shallow rather than outright malicious or even overly negligent. I wasn't offended, but again, your mileage may vary.
One big plus
was the little scene they had at the beginning of the film. It's the same one from the trailer: Jaden tries practicing Mandarin on the airplane with a fellow (Asian) passenger. The passenger leans over and says, "Dude. I'm from Detroit." Really funny scene, felt kind of like a "shout-out" to any Asian Americans in the audience.On perceived "Racebending":
I'm afraid of what detractors will say, so let me just remark: it's not "reverse racism" to cast a black actor in a remake of a film that originally had a white actor. The statistics
show how vanishingly rare it is for actors of color to be given a fair chance. The film is about an American kid who gets singled out and bullied for being different - and "American" doesn't mean "white."
It is not the same
as a story about historical or real-life individuals being whitewashed. It is not the same as a fictional hero who is rooted in a people's legacy, history, and culture being "colonized" with a white actor because of the (misguided, untrue) belief that white audiences will only pay to watch films about white people.
Just my two cents on that.As a film:
Overall, how was it? I was pleasantly surprised - really enjoyed it. It's a fun, stand-up-and-cheer summer flick. It's got just enough depth to make you really care about the characters.
The film dragged a little, especially at the beginning. I think they could have cut about twenty minutes out with improvement to the overall flow (it's over two hours long!).
I know there's a great deal of controversy about the name, not only because of the implication that "kung fu" and "karate" are the same, but also because Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi in the original) is highly venerated. Does the film deserve a spot in that legacy?
I can't speak to that... it's tough. I will say that I'm happy that a black child actor was able to represent "America" in this film.
In the end... I'd pay to see this film - though since we got to catch it free, I don't think I'll be watching it a second time.
What do y'all think? Title change unforgivable? Worth a try? Let's talk about it.