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An Interview with Warrington Hudlin
Warrington Hudlin has made an indelible name for himself in the film industry and media. In 1978, four years after graduating from Yale, he founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation. He is the producer of films, such as Boomerang (1992), House Party (1990), and Cosmic Slop (1994). His accolades include the Trailblazer Award from the Hip Hop Association, a 2005 Webby Award for best political website, and the Pioneer Award from African American Women in Cinema. He is currently a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and other councils. He serves on advisory boards such as Asian Cinevision and the Coalition of Asian Pacific Entertainment (CAPE). He also curates a monthly series at the Museum of Moving Images called Fist and Sword.
As a major name in the film industry for the past three decades, how have you seen the roles of African Americans evolve in the film industry, specifically in martial art films?
Well one thing that really struck me is that there has always been an intersection of interest between martial arts movies coming from Asia and audiences of African descent. In film marketing departments, the dollars that made these movies possible came from the pockets of Blacks and Latinos.
Actually, I had a wonderful conversation once with Michelle Yeoh. I told her that people knew her. This was her first time visiting New York, and she thought that there was no awareness of who she was. And I said, "No, no, no. In fact, we could get on subways right now and we could walk to Times Square, where people may not know you. But if you came to Harlem, people would definitely know you." She was really surprised that this community recognized that these movies came out of Hong Kong first. To this day, there's a tremendous affinity to these actors and films in the community.
What have been some of your favorite highlights in producing, directing, or curating these martial art films?
You know, for the last ten years at the Museum of Moving Images, I've been doing a monthly series called Fist and Sword. It goes out of my love for the genre. I show movies from Japan, China, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea… because I think it's a genre where, anywhere in the world, you can see a kungfu movie. It's the one constant, no matter what country you're in. It just has a universal language and message, and besides being popular, artistically it's very, very sophisticated. More recently, top films have come out of Korea. Movies like Musa, the warrior, War of the Arrows.. they're just brilliant movies. So, I use this series as a platform for the people who share my appreciation for the genre, and once a month when we gather, we have excellent conversations.
During Fist and Sword, you also interview some of the actors sometimes?
Yes. The first big one we did, which was a couple of years ago, was when The Protector came out and we had Tony Jaa. He blew us away. First of all, Jaa just being a great athlete was also a super nice guy. Just an unbelievably nice guy. Now, I had invited all the local New York-based martial art masters to come, and there was instant recognition that only happens between masters to master. So, we gathered together to take photos, and he was just amazing. He's a hugely talented guy.
Most recently, I covered the sequel of The Protector, and one of the guys who was his antagonist in the movie, is a guy named Marrese Crump. So, for the first Protector movie we had Tony Jaa. For The Protector 2, we had Marrese Crump, who in my opinion is going to be the next big African American martial arts super star. No, make that American super star.
What we do is give a platform and an early introduction of the folks coming in from China, Japan, and Korea. We're the debut stage.
In an earlier interview with Michael White, you mentioned that he's different from Bruce Lee because he's an actor does martial arts and amazing acting. With Marrese Crump, do you see him as an actor doing martial arts or a martial artist doing acting?
Interesting. I think Marrese obviously is a martial artist with acting. He can master acting, but began as a martial artist. Actually, Michael Jai White started as a martial artist, too. He was a champion! I met him first as a competitor. However, he is an excellent actor. You've seen him do movies. In fact, the movies he's doing right now are comedies. There's no kicking butts in those movies, so he stands out as an actor in those films. These guys are really good, and can do both.
You know, one of the greatest of all time is Toshiro Mifune. It doesn't get better than that. He did dramatic roles and great cinematic roles. These things are not at odds at all.
Now, you've interacted with amazing people, like yourself, from Eddie Murphy to Michael White. Who has been the most inspirational person you've worked with?
There are different inspirations from different people.
Harry Belafonte isn't someone I've worked with in front of the camera, but he is an elder. He has really advised me in my goals as a filmmaker who is concerned with social justice. Anyone who's seen the movie Selma can understand the role he played during the civil rights struggle.
He's 87 years old, and he's done it. He's an African American who has successfully negotiated in the film industry and maintained his integrity.
Everyone gives you something. So, if you are attentive to subtleties, everything comes in ways that enrich you.
You are incredibly wise. As a martial artist, I've read that you're a black belt in jujutsu and you study Chinese martial arts. On the online forum, you are very well-versed in numerous martial arts. What have been your favorite styles that you have studied?
The early studies in Jujutsu were with my teacher, Master Lil' John Davis, who was the senior student of Moses Powell. Moses Powell is a legendary figure. When you say his name, people go, "Whoa, he was the baddest of the bad." He passed away a couple years ago. So in terms of street combat, the techniques I learned from him were the reason I was able to get home safely.
In terms of the more profound, cultural arts, I studied under Grandmaster Doo Wai. Under him, I learned chi kung, and Chinese herbs and healing. So, it was mostly about the healing arts, not the fighting aspects.
Although it's not as popular as other tai chi styles, I am completely enamored with Wu Style Tai Chi. I studied with Benjamin Wu. He's in his seventies, and he's just the most amazing guy. He's an incredibly skilled person. I'm almost about 100 pounds heavier than him and probably a foot taller, and I don't have a prayer when I do push-hands with him. He doesn't teach his art like combat, but as a philosophical system. He teaches tai chi like an actualization of daoist principles, and that is quite profound.
Thank you. It seems that you also show interest in mixed martial arts, because you produced the Iron Ring. What was your inspiration in producing that?
Unfortunately, it didn't go the way I wanted it. Artistically, I'm not satisfied at all with the show. I lost control of it and it went in a direction that was not my intention. I got involved because I know the guy who created the original Ultimate Fighting. I would go to Ultimate Fighting, and it wouldn't have gloves, weight classes, you could hit anyplace… there were never any eye gouges, but I was there when groin strikes were allowed. I mean, really rough stuff. What's interesting is that a lot of stuff that I thought was so deadly, weren't deadly. These guys kept walking! It was an eye-opener in terms of knowing the extent of damage you can do in martial arts. Today, everyone's technique is getting so, so much better. Now, it really is mixed. People know how to stand and grapple. You can't do one or the other. You have to have both.
So, I'm not really enamored with mixed martial arts, mainly because I find that mixed martial arts competitors show disrespect to the Asian culture. That bothers me tremendously because the most profound thing of martial arts is not simply technique, but the culture and philosophical principles that it grows out of. To leave that behind would mean missing the point.
A few of them, like George St. Pierre, show respect to the culture. But too many of them are not open to the different aspects of martial arts, and it's a lost opportunity.
The principles that you've learned in martial arts… have you applied them to the filmmaking that you do?
Yes, particularly now that I'm doing tai chi. When stress comes, you relax and redirect it. That is something I apply everyday as a filmmaker. The response to stress is not to get to tense, not to fight or push back, but to neutralize where the problem is and redirect the energy. So yes, I use it in my daily life.
And you can tell that you're good at flexibility, because not only are you a pioneering filmmaker, but you're also one of the only directors in the industry to have commercial success in traditional media and online media. So, what do you think of the future for the filmmaking industry and online media?
I'm hoping, in fact, I'm working on this everyday, to make that transition. I think that online medium, particularly for projects that are niche, that goes directly to consumers is the future.
You are definitely a visionary in the field. In 1978, you co-founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation, which created a pivotal entertainment industry for African Americans?
Actually, I'm the Founding President, not the co-founder.
Oh my goodness. I'm sorry!
No, no. It's been written incorrectly so many times that it's become a part of public record. However, I am the president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, also known as BFF.
And this was after your days at Yale?
Yup, I graduated from Yale in 1974.
What have been some of your favorite accomplishments for BFF?
When Spike Lee was a student, we were helpful to him. We supported his efforts. So if you ask anyone in the business, they would tell you that the first institution to organize and create a facility for them to grow and prosper… they would say that we were that organization.
In an ideal world, what would the role of African Americans, particularly in martial arts films, look like? For example, would we have more stars like Michael White or Marrese Crump?
I think that when you really appreciate the genre, you want to see more of it. I like the fact that we live in a more diverse world now. The martial arts aspect is exciting because it's the one practice that brings you together across gender, religion, or color. If you train, you train. I like the fact that you can walk in a dojo and be unified by the fact that everyone there is a martial artist, be it judoka, karateka, kung fu practitioner, whoever you are. You can all embrace it. It becomes a thing that you share that supersedes your differences.
Thank you so much for doing this interview. Now, I know why you're so heavily quoted online! Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?
Well, I'm always open to having people join my Martial Arts Community on Facebook. I also hope that whenever they're in New York, they come visit one of my monthly screenings.