WERE AMOS & ANDY SCI-FI GEEKS? Spencer Williams and the Son of Ingagi
Well, if not, Spencer Williams – the man who portrayed the dreamer, Andrew “Andy” Hogg Brown – certainly was.
For those of you too young to remember the show, or with parents too young to remember it…or for those who have chosen to forget just what Amos n Andy is, it started as a radio comedy series set in the African-American community of first, Chicago, then Harlem. It was written and voiced by Caucasian comedians, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll and originated from station WMAQ in Chicago.
After the program was first broadcast in 1928, it grew to become a huge influence on all the radio series that followed it. The show ran as a nightly radio serial from 1928 until 1943, as a weekly situation comedy from 1943 until 1955, and as a nightly disc-jockey program from 1954 until 1960.
The television adaptation ran on CBS-TV from 1951 until 1953, and continued in syndicated reruns from 1954 until 1966.
Considered by many to be the most offensive television program of all time, Amos n Andy was also one of first TV shows to have a predominantly black cast. Stories mostly centered on the titular characters’ Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge leader, George “The Kingfish” Stevens and his schemes to get rich, which often included duping his brothers in the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge. Andy was particularly dupable. Amos mostly narrated the goings on.
Determined to realize improved images of ourselves in popular culture, the characters in Amos ‘n Andy – including rude, aggressive women and weak black men – were offensive.
Most of the characters – especially, the Kingfish and his wife, Sapphire Stevens – could not engage in a conversation without peppering their speech with faulty grammar and mispronunciations.
The NAACP, bolstered by its 1951 summer convention, mandated an official protest of the program. The organization outlined a list of specific items it felt were objectionable, for example, how “every character is either a clown or a crook,” “Negro doctors are shown as quacks,” and “Negro lawyers are shown as crooks.” As the series aired in June 1951, the NAACP appeared in federal court seeking an injunction against its premiere.
In 1953, CBS reluctantly removed the program from the air.
The Amos ‘n Andy show, however, remained in syndication well into the 1960s and is currently available on DVD.
Before Spencer Williams became known to the nation as Andy Brown of Amos n’ Andy, he wrote, directed and starred in numerous “race” films – a film genre which existed in the United States between about 1915 and 1950, consisting of films produced for an all-black audience and featuring black casts.
Approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred are available for public view. Because race films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they have been largely ignored by mainstream film historians.
As a director, Spencer Williams brought the technique of montage, the superimposing of scenes, to race films and is the writer of the first black science fiction movie, Son of Ingagi (1940).
Alfred N. Sack, whose Dallas, Texas-based company, Sack Amusement Enterprises, produced and distributed race films, was impressed with Williams’ screenplay for Son of Ingagi and offered him the opportunity to write and direct a feature film.
At that time, the only African American filmmaker was the self-financing writer/director/producer Oscar Micheaux.
With his own film projector, Williams began traveling in the southern US, showing his films to audiences. During this time, he met William H. Kier, who was also traveling the same circuit showing films. The two formed a partnership and produced some motion pictures, training films for the Army Air Forces, as well as a film for the Catholic diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Williams’ resulting film, The Blood of Jesus (1941), was produced by his own company, Amnegro (I swear I did not make that up), on a $5,000 budget using non-professional actors for his cast. The film, a religious fantasy about the struggle for a dying’ Christian woman’s soul, was a major commercial success.
With the success of The Blood of Jesus, Williams was invited to direct additional films for Sack Amusement Enterprises. In the next six years, Williams directed Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus (1942), Marching On! (1943), Go Down Death (1944), Of One Blood (1944), Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946), The Girl in Room 20 (1946), Beale Street Mama (1947), Juke Joint (1947) and Jesus versus Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (1948) (Okay, I did make that one up).
Following the production of Juke Joint, Williams relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he joined Amos T. Hall in founding the American Business and Industrial College.
Spencer Williams becomes “Andy”
In 1948, U.S. radio comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were planning to take their long-running comedy program Amos ‘n Andy to television. The program focused on the misadventures of a group of African Americans in the Harlem section of New York City. Gosden and Correll were white, but played the black lead characters using racially stereotypical speech patterns. They had previously played the roles in blackface make-up for the 1930 film Check and Double Check, but for the television version they opted to use an African American cast.
Gosden and Correll conducted an extensive national talent search to cast the television version of Amos ‘n Andy. News of the search reached Tulsa, where Williams was sought out by a local radio station that was aware of his previous work in race films.
Williams successfully auditioned for Gosden and Correll, and he was cast as Andrew H. Brown. Williams was joined in the cast by New York theater actor Alvin Childress, who was cast as Amos, and vaudeville comedian Tim Moore, who was cast as their lodge leader, George “Kingfish” Stevens.
After the removal of Amos n Andy from the air, Williams, along with television show cast members Tim Moore, Alvin Childress, and Lillian Randolph and her choir, began a US tour as “The TV Stars of Amos ‘n’ Andy” in 1956. CBS considered this a violation of their exclusivity rights for the show and its characters and the tour was brought to a premature end.
Williams returned to work in stage productions. In 1958, he had a role in the Los Angeles production of Simply Heavenly; the play had a successful New York run. His last credited role was as a hospital orderly in the 1962 Italian horror production L’Orribile Segreto del Dottor Hitchcock.
Williams died of a kidney ailment on December 13, 1969, at the Sawtelle Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by his wife, Eula. At the time of his death, news coverage focused solely on his work as a television actor, since few white filmgoers knew of his race films. The New York Times obituary for Williams cited Amos ‘n Andy but made no mention of his work as a film director. A World War I veteran, he is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.
Recognition for Williams’ work as a film director came years after his death, when film historians began to rediscover the race films. Some of Williams’ films were considered lost until they were located in a Tyler, Texas, warehouse in 1983. His 1942 feature, Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus, is still considered lost.
Most film historians consider The Blood of Jesus to be Williams’ crowning achievement as a filmmaker. Dave Kehr of The New York Times called the film “magnificent” and Time magazine counted it among its “25 Most Important Films on Race.” In 1991, The Blood of Jesus became the first race film to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry.
Film critic, Armond White, named both The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death as being “among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives.”
Son of Ingagi
Son of Ingagi is about Eleanor and Bob Lindsay inheriting the house of a doctor Helen Jackson, who had just returned from her trip to Africa with gold and a missing link-type creature named N’Gina.
When N’Gina drinks a potion created by Doctor Jackson, it sends him into a murderous rage and he kills the doctor.
The Lindsay family inherits Dr. Jackson’s house – and, unbeknownst to them – the monstrous, murderous N’Gina along with it.
For what happens next, watch the film. I have embedded it below for your viewing pleasure.
Spencer Williams was a multitalented man whose genius and unwavering determination have earned him a place in the League of Extraordinary Black People!
Learn more about Spencer Williams – and other great people and events in Black Science Fiction and Fantasy films – at the Black Science Fiction Film Festival.
Steampunk: What in the hell is it, really?
Many will argue that when H. G. Wells was writing, people believed in the possibility of time machines, making animals sentient and traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there.
Now, if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction and most people agree that – along with Jules Verne – Wells created the model for anachronistic fiction (i.e. Steampunk, Dieselpunk and the like), then is Steampunk science fiction?
Yet, you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones. Unless, of course, the Science Fiction and Fantasy titles are, annoyingly, combined onto one set of shelves, a la Barnes and Noble.
So, is steampunk science fiction, or is it fantasy?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “Steampunk”, please check out http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/24/punk-101-steampunk-dieselpunk-and-a-three-year-old-genius/, or http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/01/23/state-of-black-sci-fi-2012-why-i-love-steampunk/.
The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy
Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience.
While Science Fiction and Fantasy share some characteristics, there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.
Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything – magic wands; fire-breathing dragons; shiny, shimmering vampires; werewolves; genies in lamps; lizard men and sentient swords. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific perspective.
While the magical elements must be internally consistent, they do not need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that are not supported with plausible sounding techno-babble, then it is fantasy.
When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of science and science fiction, replied, “Science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” We authors can – at times – be quite presumptuous and this statement is presumptuous to the nth degree, as Asimov implies that he knows everything that is possible and all that is real. He doesn’t (didn’t – he passed away in 1992). We don’t.
A better distinction was provided by the science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who said, “There’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.”
He is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we cannot yet explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present some rationale for how such things could exist and demands a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. The explanation does not need to answer such questions in detail, but the reader must feel that a scientific explanation is possible and links back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.
Science fiction is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, supports the idea of the existence of things science cannot explain or deal with.
There are those who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that the binary system of African divination is as viable as Boolean logic. Both types of people can, however, read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy.
Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking and evoke a sense of wonder. Both genres can take us to strange and fascinating worlds.
Now, there are stories in which both magic and science work, science is so sophisticated it simulates magic, or characters possess psychic powers so strong they resemble magic. A term that has been applied to these stories is ‘science fantasy.’
An example would be Star Wars, a fantasy adventure with science fiction elements. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Van Helsing – a popular Steampunk movie. The science fiction element is the weapons and even the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. The fantasy aspects of Van Helsing include the existence of vampires and werewolves.
Stories involving time travel are generally considered science fantasy as well.
So, if Steampunk is, science fantasy, why not just call it – and Star Wars, Van Helsing and time travel stories, for that matter – fantasy?
Well, even the best Steampunk story – a story like Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman Books 1 & 2 (shameless plug) – may not appeal to someone who strictly enjoys high fantasy. A pure fantasy reader may not appreciate a story with a dwarf who wields a steam-powered war-hammer or an elf who pilots a dirigible.
The hard science fiction fan would, most likely, loathe the inclusion of Orcs, fighting alongside the Cassad Empire in the far reaches of the Dark Universe.
So, the science fiction elements make it not purely fantasy, but the fantasy elements make it not purely science fiction either.
And the debate continues as to just what Steampunk is.
I asked the members of the State of Black Science Fiction – a group of which I am a proud, founding member – whether Steampunk is Science Fiction or Fantasy and got some interesting answers. I thank all of them for their insight and happily share them with you.
Cm Talley, noted P-Funk scholar and author: “Well, there’s very little science involved, so, it is very definitely fantasy. If there are elements of Wellsian aliens or Vernsian explorations, then you might straddle the ‘science’ line, but for the most part it’s a variation of historical fiction. Steampunk uses a different paradigm: post-feudal, post Age of Reason, New World colonization. Antebellum to height of industrial revolution to Reconstruction, Gilded Age (Victorian Era if you’re British). I call it the ‘alternate history’ branch of fantasy.”
Diop Malvi, author: “Always considered Steampunk/funk as science fiction of the alternate world variety.”
Valjeanne Jeffers,author of the Immortal series of novels and the Steampunk novel, The Switch II: Clockwork: “Steampunk didn’t just come into being – it’s been around for a while. Think Adam Ant; Sherlock Holmes; and the movie, Time After Time (based on H.G. Well’s The Time Machine).
Steampunk is an island of fantasy – of escape – within our technological, very stressful 21th century. Just like every other type of speculative fiction. And a way of making one’s own personal statement.
Someone on a Steampunk blog, described it as ‘poorly defined’. Really? Seriously? How about open to experimentation and imagination. Steampunk is a glorious mixture of other fantasy/SF genres. And the settings and plots reflect this – plots set in the post-civil war; Victorian England; Post-Apocalyptic America; or a futuristic world, as in my Steampunk story: The Switch II: Clockwork .”
Maurice Broaddus, author of The Knights of Breton Court series of novels and the Steampunk story, Pimp My Airship: “Alternate history, which so much of Steampunk is, falls under science fiction.”
Vincent Moore, Senior Media Correspondent at Komplicated.com and author of the Total Recall comic book series: “I agree with Maurice. Where most Steampunk gets going is the argument about what would have happened if the Babbage Difference Engine actually started the Computer Age early. Everything else descends from that argument.”
Geoffrey Thorne, writer for USA network’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Ben 10: Ultimate Alien and TNT’s Leverage.: “It’s sci-fi if it uses science as its central technological engine. It’s fantasy if there are dragons and wizards powering the stuff.”
Cynthia Ward, Market Reporter for the SFWA Bulletin and – with author Nisi Shawl – teaches the workshop Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction: “Alternate histories are usually classified as science fiction, but then the Soulless/Umbrella Protectorate series, by Gail Carriger, is urban fantasy with its parallel-Victorian werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. So I’d say the content of the individual Steampunk titles determines whether they’re science fiction or fantasy (or science fantasy).”
Ronald Jones, author of the novels Chronicle of the Liberator and Warriors of the Four Worlds: “I’d say it depends on the author. Steam technology is real world, based upon real science and engineering principles. Add steam tech to a fictional tale, create a fantastical setting, but don’t introduce magical elements, your Steampunk story will be science fiction. If magic is added to your story then I would consider it fantasy.”
Alicia McCalla, author of the Teen Dystopian novel, Breaking Free: “Balogun Ojetade I think it’s both depending upon the direction the story takes. Alternate History with steam power would be more like Science Fiction but a new or alien world that uses steam technology would be more like Fantasy. Hoping you find a way to explain that. LOL!”
Hmm…so many opinions.
Maybe that is another reason I love Steampunk / Steamfunk. It freely draws from science fiction, fantasy, horror and history, yet is not bound by any of them.
Perhaps Steampunk is just…Steampunk.
As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter. Please share.
DOING AWAY WITH TRADITION: The Savior of Black Entertainment!
Calling something “traditional”, or oneself a “traditionalist”, or referring to “traditions” is often an implication of Right and Wrong. However, a tradition, in actuality, is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past.
I am an African traditionalist. For me, that means I practice a spirituality that predates Judeo-Christian religion on the African continent and has been passed down, for eons within Yoruba society. Although I do consider my spirituality to be right and exact (or else, why practice it?), I do not consider someone else’s to be wrong. However, for many, the term traditional is used to say “Hey, what I do is the right way and your way is bullshit.
Filmmaking is full of “traditions”. These traditions are “the way things are done”, they are “industry standard”, they are “what is expected and accepted”, implying that there is a correct way to do things and deviations from that way are incorrect and unacceptable.
One such long-standing and entrenched tradition is the significance of the Short Film.
The Short Film is generally accepted to be significant to the emerging and aspiring filmmaker primarily, as learning experience and secondly, as a calling card. The short film allows you to gain experience without the overhead. Similarly, as a calling card, the short film serves as a demonstration of your abilities as a filmmaker in order to convince potential investors to trust you with the responsibility – and budget – to make a longer project.
The theory is that a good short film allows you to proclaim “If this is what I can do in 10 minutes of screen time, on a shoestring budget, just imagine what I could do with 90 minutes and millions of dollars!”
Learning experience; calling card. If this is what short films are for they have epically failed on both accounts.
The short film fails as a learning experience because making a short film only really teaches you about making short films. The structures, patterns and conventions of short film have little to no relationship to feature films.
A short film is not just a feature film shoved into a tiny house. A short film, simply by its duration, cannot fully expand your understanding of the elements of story, character, theme, myth and metaphor.
Furthermore, a short film will not prompt you to ask who your audience is; what they expect; what they want; what excites and challenges them; or how they will respond.
Ironically, film schools all over the globe make short films the fundamental learning experience, but spend nearly 100% of their class time discussing and analyzing feature films. That is like going to a karate school, studying day after day, month after month, year after how to snatch a man’s torso off and then, for your black belt exam, having to run like hell from some 126 pound orange belt. While running is sometimes the best strategy and a hasty retreat can be an art in itself, it really proves nothing about competence in the snatch-off-a-torso technique.
Now, if you are happy making short films as a mode of artistic expression, more power to you. However, I would wager that most of you aspiring filmmakers want to make feature films and will do so as soon as the budget allows.
No matter how dope / raw / funky / cold / hot your short film is, if your intention is to make bigger, longer dramatic works, it will largely fail to serve your intent. Short films do not demonstrate the crucial things that fill financiers with confidence. A short film, regardless of how “good” it is, can’t effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs and it doesn’t show you understand narrative structure.
A short film does not prove you know how to develop a story over time, or construct consistent dramatic tension and release. A short film doesn’t demonstrate you understand genre and know how to attract an audience.
Without these things there is no real evidence you can effectively make a viable feature film.
Well, if not short films, then what? Is there something better?
Lacking time and resources to make a feature film or a TV pilot, the answer is the web series, or webisode.
What is a Webisode?
A webisode – also known as web originals, web shows, web series, and online series – is a show in episodic form released online, or in some cases, across various mobile platforms. The series is created to live on the web and individual shows within a web series tend to run between 3 minutes and 6 minutes, with an entire season, from beginning to end, averaging an hour to an hour and a half.
When making a web show, the question is what kind of web show will you make? While web series take many forms, typical categories include sci-fi/fantasy (The Silent City; Osiris: the Series), comedies (Awkward Black Girl; 12 Steps to Recovery) and dramas (Touye Pwen: Kill Point; Celeste Bright).
Advantages of the Web Series
While most producers and financiers may currently ask to see your short film and inquire what festivals it has been in, many are now asking where your web series website is and how much traffic you webseries gets.
The advantages of the web series, as both learning experience and calling card, are myriad and obvious.
The web series is resource-viable. It takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.
The web series can easily find a far larger international audience than a short film on the festival circuit ever could. In doing so the web series proves the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.
While webisodes are generally short, the nature of their spacing and structure connects very well to feature film narrative turning points, and television episodes and seasons.
The web series may be small scale but the core structure is tangibly applicable and demonstrable, unlike most short films which – like running away, in relation to snatching off a man’s torso – offer little direct overlap.
In regard to the web series, transmedia – the development of stories across multiple forms of media in order to deliver unique pieces of content over multiple channels – is part and parcel of what a web series is. Where short and feature film projects the world over are being asked to add these elements (websites, trailers, games, etc), the web series is integrated tightly to this model from the start.
A good short film can be a great work of art but emerging and aspiring filmmakers need much more than a short work of art to build a career. The short-format, online, episodic webseries is the most dynamic, audience-driven, self-publicizing, learning vehicle independent filmmakers have ever had access to.
Find Your Audience
No matter how good your story is…if you can’t find someone to watch it, then you’re not likely to get much traction from your work.
If you can’t sit down and easily identify what kind of person will like your show and name five places that person might go to on the internet to hype your series, you will have a hard time getting the word out about your masterpiece.
As much as you may dread the idea, you’ll have to put in major work in order to alert the masses to your series. You have to market and promote. Even if your series is the best ever, you may have to work just as hard to convince people to watch as you did to make it.
However, within the last year more money has been devoted to original web content than at any time in the past. Youtube recently committed $100 million to nurturing new web-based talent. And Hulu has earmarked a half billion dollars for original content. Yep, $500 million.
Much of this interest comes from web series demonstrating their ability to reach larger groups of people and generate revenue. Most successful web shows appeal to very specific niche audiences and then grow from there.
That growth, or course, is a function of perseverance. If you can produce a series, find an audience and keep it, then the industry might just catch up to you with sponsors.
Five Keys to Success
- Have Something to Say – With the cost of filmmaking dropping all the time, creating your own series can be enticing, but you have to have something to say. Have a story to tell. No matter what your topic, the story needs to be compelling.
- Manage Your Imagination – Scale down your vision into something that’s shootable; something that you can make without waiting for approval or money. The greatest advantage of a producing a web series is that you do not need anyone’s okay to make it, and you don’t need anyone’s funding. You can shoot something compelling and engaging without lots money as long as you remain realistic about your ability to shoot it within the confines of your resources.
- Use The Resources at Hand – There are many people around you that can help you produce your project. There are actors, editors, sound people, hair and make-up people, wardrobe experts and camera operators who will work with you for little to no money because, like you, they seek to build experience and their portfolio. Also recruit talented friends and family members. Hiring your cool uncle Rollo to be your cinematographer might not be a great idea unless he has some training in film and experience as a director of photography and camera operator.
- Be a Leader – If it is your web series, then you are the leader. Everyone is looking to you as the captain of the ship. And trust me, you will be held responsible for everything – from your assistant director showing up drunk to an actor’s costume being a size too small because they chose to binge on Big Macs the night before a shoot. Have a plan. If not, then you are in for a world of grief and your project will probably go nowhere.
- If You Build It, Money Will Come – This might sound unrealistic, but it has been proven time and again that if you do good work consistently, the money will come – whether someone wants to buy your web series, or buy your talent and have you put the same effort into a television show or a feature film. Do not limit yourself to being a writer or a web-series producer – you are a creator. Create!
The Webseries: Savior of Black Entertainment?
New series that target the Black community are popping up every month.
Savior or not, this emergence of original Web programming is, indeed, good news for black art and expression.
In regard to our project, Rite of Passage, co-producer, Milton Davis and I are deciding whether to produce and pitch the show as a television series for independent television networks that celebrate the Black experience, such as Bounce TV (http://www.bouncetv.com/) and ASPiRE TV (http://www.aspire.tv/) or produce it as a web series.
Which do you think we should do?
McDojos: Over 40 Million Served
On occasion, I like to deviate from my regular posts on Steampunk, Steamfunk and / or the craft of writing and talk about some aspect of the martial arts.
I am honored to have the opportunity to share with you what little knowledge I have acquired in my forty years of training in – and twenty-five years of teaching – traditional African martial arts and I welcome your questions and comments.
A martial artist, like any other artist, has the responsibility to render the truth as they see it, so I will do just that. If this blog wounds anyone, so be it. Band-Aids only cost $2.99 a box. Now, here goes:
In this blog, we will discuss the bane and shame of the martial arts world: The “McDojo”.
McDojos are martial arts schools that – like the restaurant chain with a similar name – fill their patrons with garbage disguised as something good and, in the end, help to create soft, martial arts pooh-bears, or overly aggressive brutes.
The McDojo’s motive is profit.
McDojos teach impractical, ineffective martial arts and send unprepared, over confident students from the pristine, safe and controlled environment of the McDojo into the real world, armed with the false belief that they can defend themselves and teach others to do the same.
In actuality, these bamboozled students have no real combat or self-defense skills. They have wasted valuable time and money and are the victims of fraud and deception.
McDojos crank out thousands of “Black Belts” each year, who open schools after one or two years of training. Over half of these “Instructors” are twelve (12) years old and younger.
We have people who have never been hit, or who have never actually hit anyone, teaching self-defense to ourselves and our children. I have even been told of McDojos that convince unwitting students that they can learn to fight through the practice of dance steps. These instructors are basically ballet – or belly – dancers in a “karate suit”.
Learning to dance prepares the nervous system, mind and muscles for dancing, not combat. Next time you see someone disarm a knife wielding attacker with the “Stanky-Leg”, let me know.
With McDojos now outnumbering credible martial arts schools, it is essential that you learn to distinguish between the two, if you are serious about defending yourself and your loved ones
While visiting a martial arts school, listen for these McDojo warning signs:
- “You don’t have to experience pain in order to learn to fight effectively.”
- “We have techniques that can stop any grappler from taking us to the ground.”
- “If you have enough control to punch or kick inches from someone’s face without actually hitting them, you can easily hit them on the street.”
- “If you can break a board, you can break a bone.”
- “We train slowly and softly in class, but on the street, when adrenaline’s pumping, we hit hard and fast.”
- “We can make you a Black Belt (or Red Sash, or Instructor, etc.) in one to two years.”
- “If a child can perform the same techniques as an adult, then they are capable of teaching as an adult.”
- “I am Grandmaster of this style and the only person alive qualified to teach it.”
- “I teach Kemetic Kung Fu.” (Since when is anything Chinese “Kemetic”?)
The Making of a Mythster
We really do not realize how influenced by martial arts movies we really are.
We believe in – and actively seek out – Mr. Miyagi (or Mr. Han, in the remake), from The Karate Kid; Stick, from Marvel Comics’ Daredevil and Elektra books; or Pai Mei, from Kill Bill, Vol. 2.
The more mystical and mysterious the better. Damn practical self-defense technique when you can just snatch out your opponent’s entire ribcage and show it to him before he hits the ground.
While teaching my students in the park a couple of years ago, an onlooker, who claimed to be a lifelong student of the martial arts, observed me “take a student’s strength” and then “give it back to him” and then watched as the entire class tried – futilely – to push me backward, even while I was standing on one leg.
I explained to the students that this had nothing to do with magic, but had everything to do with my knowledge of physics and biomechanics – something that is extensively studied in indigenous African martial arts.
The onlooker approached us and exclaimed “You’re foolin’ ‘em! You’re foolin’ ‘em!”
“Fooling them?” I inquired. “How so?”
“You’re a chi master, pretending that your power is just physics and biology and whatnot,” he replied.
That poor man would rather believe I was a sorcerer than a scientist. Sad, but the truth is: most people are just like him.
This is why so many myths abound in the martial arts and why McDojos around the world are raking in big bucks…from you.
Let’s kill a few myths right now:
This is one of the oldest American martial arts legends, and has absolutely no basis in truth.
First, the U.S. government doesn’t regulate the martial arts, which means there is no process to identify people practicing the fighting arts and there is no governmental method by which practitioners can be evaluated…at least no process of identification they have revealed to the public.
Actually, there is not a country on earth in which martial artists are required to register themselves as weapons, deadly or otherwise.
This myth has its roots in three different events that occurred within the mid-20th Century:
In post-World War II Japan, the traditional martial arts were banned and records were kept of experienced practitioners. The ban and keeping of records only lasted a few years and never spread beyond the borders of Japan.
Another event is the regulation of the activities of U.S. servicemen overseas.
Following World War II and even into the 1960s, military personnel who enrolled in martial arts programs were asked to register their participation, though not themselves.
When a person joins the military, he’s essentially the property of the U.S. government and engaging in activities that needlessly result in injury is like damaging military equipment. If a school was causing a lot of injuries, the military wanted to know about it. They would forbid military personnel from training at such schools and in some cases, the U.S. government would shut a school down.
The third event is rooted in the soil of the rich and often outrageous history of professional pugilism. In the era of boxer Joe Louis, it was common to have police on hand during a press conference to “register” the boxer as a deadly weapon.
This was merely a publicity stunt and carried no legal weight.
In court cases involving violent confrontations, lawyers and judges may advise the jury to bear in mind a person’s martial arts, boxing or military training when evaluating the facts of the case, as in the Matter of the Welfare of DSF, 416 N.W.2d 772 (Minn. App. 1988), where the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant, who had “substantial experience in karate,” was aware enough of the potential of his blows to deliberately break the plaintiff’s jaw.
That is a lot different, however, from legally stating that the person in question is a registered and/or licensed deadly weapon.
What is disturbing, however, is that some martial artists carry “registration cards” which they have received from their McDojo, who charged them a hefty fee to be registered. These unwitting students believed that they were registered as deadly weapons. Sad.
Nose in Brain
Inevitably, at every workshop I teach, I am asked to demonstrate a quick “death move” that anyone can do to take out any opponent. Someone will invariably shout: “Push his nose into his brain!”
Now, tell me: Can a person really strike someone in a way that will drive the nose bone into the brain? The answer is an emphatic “No!” I repeat: No! You cannot drive any part of the nose into the brain!
This cannot be done and never has been. Anyone who argues to the contrary is misinformed or outright lying and stands in opposition to overwhelming medical and anatomical fact.
Firstly, the nose is primarily composed of malleable cartilage which does not possess the tensile strength necessary to penetrate the thick bone of which the skull is composed. Secondly, even if the nose was entirely made of bone - and it is NOT – it would not be long enough to reach the brain.
This is one of the most popular myths in American culture and has grown to urban legend status from its appearances in books and movies.
In Stephen King’s novel Firestarter the assassin John Rainbird contemplates killing someone in this fashion and in the movie, he actually does it; the author Shirley Conran used the nose-in-brain technique as a plot device in her novel Savages. For the use of this mighty mythological technique, you can also see the Bruce Willis action flick, The Last Boy Scout, the Nicholas Cage film, Con Air and A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris.
The structure of the nose makes the nose-in-brain death-blow impossible. The nose bone, or crista galli, is a thick, smooth, triangular piece of bone that projects from the bone that forms the roof of the nasal cavity (cribriform plate).
Though there are small openings in the cribriform plate, which allow nerves to pass through it, these openings are not large enough to allow a piece of splintered crista galli to enter the brain case, nor are these openings direct conduits to the brain.
So the nose-in-brain death-blow, as dynamic and spectacular as it is in fiction, is just that…fiction.
A Black Belt Is a Master
Nope. Not even close.
First of all, most martial arts do not even use belts (or sashes, for those that wanna be cute).
For those that do, a first-degree black belt is merely an advanced beginner. The belt signifies his or her passage from the ranks of those who are still learning to the ranks of those who’ve learned how to learn.
The transition from white belt to black belt has less to do with techniques than with learning the methodologies necessary to think like a martial artist.
A black belt should be able to grasp the principles upon which the arts are based, which is far more important than his ability to perform any technique. The black belt has learned how to learn and therefore becomes more proactive in his own education.
Most of my colleagues in the traditional Asian martial arts maintain that a person becomes a true expert by the time he reaches fourth degree, which is, for many arts, the point at which a person can begin teaching.
These days, first- and second-degree black belts are often assigned to teach, and many are even called sensei. This is a marketing tactic; one that, in fact, confuses people, especially when we learn to equate anyone with a black belt with instructor-level expertise.
If you’re already enrolled in a McDojo, I suggest you break that lengthy and expensive contract you signed, on the grounds that you were defrauded, throw that belly-dancing six-year old master instructor over your knee and whoop his little ass.
Nah, just sue that McDojo for every dime you ever paid them, plus pain and suffering, then e-mail me and I’ll direct you to a reputable school in your area.
Until next time: Stay strong and keep it (Steam)funky!