A film showcasing the careers of early black martial arts icons left its small audience wanting more.
“The Black Kung Fu Experience,” a 2012 documentary directed by Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen, was screened in the Fox Room at Rutland Free Library on Saturday. The event was hosted by the Rutland NAACP to coincide with Black History Month.
The film follows the careers of several black martial artists, such as Rob Van Clief, Donald Hamby and Dennis Brown, who among others became interested in the martial arts from watching Chinese Kung Fu-themed films, which were popular with American audiences in the late 1960s and 1970s.
“I chose this (film) because I thought there was good intersection between black history and other cultures, which is why I was disappointed they don’t talk more about the roots of martial arts in China,” said Heather Stevenson, treasurer of the Rutland NAACP.
The film does touch on the Asian perspective with regards to martial arts, but focuses more on the role Kung Fu and related disciplines had on the African American community.
Van Clief’s story is one of the most interesting. He said his love of martial arts began with he and his friends sneaking into Kung Fu movies as kids.
“I became addicted to Kung Fu,” he said in the film. Van Clief would go on to learn martial arts and move to Hong Kong, where he’d have a role in scores of martial arts movies. He also fought in competitions and won great renown there.
“The black guy was always the bad guy,” he said of the films he was in.
Van Clief grew up in Brooklyn and went to North Carolina when he joined the Marines.
“Racism was the order of the day in the Carolinas,” he said.
“I always had a hard time sitting in the back of the bus,” he said, talking about one day when he decided to sit somewhere besides the back. He said he was arrested and upon being released from jail, was promptly beaten and lynched by a mob.
“I woke up, I was in the hospital. They never caught any of them,” he said.
Upon being released from the hospital, Van Clief was sent to Vietnam, where he served on a helicopter crew, then on an artillery piece. Racism was rampant on the battlefield, too, he said. When he returned to the United States, he needed help.
“I was really lost,” he said. “Martial arts was my escape.”
Chris Shaddock, of Mendon, attended the screening and said he’s done some training with Van Clief and Oso Tayari Casel, another martial artist featured in the film.
“There’s much deeper messages ... knowing these men and having practiced with them,” he said. “Their essence is peace.”
“When I think of Kung Fu, we always look at it from the Asian perspective, but they looked at it from the black perspective, and gave some history of how it happened, how it started out over in China and Asia but they also talk about how some of the techniques they picked up when they were slaves, and then they talked about Jamaica and all the different places and how it was all put together,” said Art Trevino, of Rutland, who viewed the film along with his wife, Cindy. “It wasn’t just the Asian perspective, but it was a black perspective on how they were able to use it and how it had been, and is still being, used in the schools today to help children go ahead and grow.”