Rae Shaw remembers recording her favorite kung fu movies on VHS in her childhood home. A lover of dance and film, the fight sequences drew her into these stories of revenge and honor. But it was the rarer, female-centric stories that stayed with her.
“I really admired the women martial artists,” says Shaw, a filmmaker and Emerson College professor. “A lot of the female stories were about protecting communities, justice, and family. Those were things that were really worth fighting for. I wanted to believe that I could be like those women.”
Her new series, "Black Kung Fu Chick," premiered this month at the Slamdance Film Festival (held online due to the covid-19 pandemic). It follows Tasha, a young Black woman from South Los Angeles (played by Taylor Polidore), stuck in summer school between her senior year of high school and what should be her first year in college. She wants to study pre-med at UCLA, but her responsibilities and burdens are getting her into trouble and keeping her from achieving her goals.
“There’s an issue with adultification, where young women of color are asked to grow up faster, they're expected to know more, they're also punished more,” says Shaw. “They're not actually allowed to be just girls, to have the freedom to make mistakes. I really wanted this show to open up some of those questions and investigate them.”
After Tasha is beat up by a group of her male peers for defending her friend against sexual harassment, her math teacher Mr. Jian (played by Peter Boon Koh), offers to help her. She thinks he’s going to teach her kung fu. She wants to fight back. But instead, he offers her quiet and philosophical lessons in QiGong.
“He knows that she really wants to become a doctor. And so if he can help to cultivate more of that energy, he'll be able to help her to become a better healer,” says Shaw.
Shot in Super 8 with intricate fight choreography, Black Kung Fu Chick has all the retro charm of the genre’s heyday, but its themes and unique transmedia structure come together to tell a very modern story.
“Transmedia is the idea that you’re telling the story through multiple platforms. So there’s the web episodes, but there’s also a game, a comic book, and a blog,” says Shaw.
The first sequence of webisodes is available online at Slamdance through Thursday, Feb. 25. When the series is released to the public later this year, it will contain 10 sequences made up of short webisodes centered around one fight sequence. In the video game, players help Tasha make the decisions that will prepare her for the rest of her life.
Shaw hopes the interactive film will challenge stereotypes about South Los Angeles and the people who live there. After spending time in those neighborhoods for work, she learned that the media narrative she’d been fed of violence and poverty didn’t tell the whole story. What she saw was a vibrant community, full of gardens and diverse culture.
“I really wanted to tell a story about the girls in that community, the young women, and their issues and concerns,” says Shaw. “I've definitely had a pattern that I love to write young black girls. I just really like being able to empower them. To see them blossom and find themselves as they become young adults and go out into the world.”
The first sequence of “Black Kung Fu Chick” is available online at the Slamdance Film Festival through Feb. 25.
This segment aired on February 24, 2021.