According to news reports, actor Julius Carry died on Aug. 19 from pancreatic cancer, and I'm a little broke up about it. The actor had been a staple in Hollywood for 40 years, appearing in a plethora of TV shows, such as The Jeffersons, 227, Murphy Brown, and Caroline in the City, and co-starring in the cult favorite The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. He also had a pretty decent filmography, including The Avenging Disco Godfather, a flick that, coupled with a trough of buffalo wings and a case of brew, I've enjoyed on many a late-night viewing, and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a movie I only saw because my dad got us to the theater too late to get tickets to Star Trek: The Motion Picture but, in retrospect, was much more entertaining. But the reason everyone knows who Julius Carry is, and why I'm so sad, is because of his role in The Last Dragon. Carry played Sho'Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, one of my favorite characters in black film.
Y'know, The Last Dragon is actually a pretty fascinating movie. Depending on whether or not you group 1988's Action Jackson in the Eddie Murphy/Character-Driven Age of Black Film (which I do), 1985's The Last Dragon is, arguably, the last so-called blaxploitation movie. And like many examples of that maligned group of films, The Last Dragon has a surprisingly complex plot. Taimak plays "Bruce" Leroy Green, a young martial artist in present-day Harlem who is obsessed with the stereotypical, "chop-socky" movie view of Chinese martial-arts culture and looks for validation from the mythical aspects of it. Of course, by the end, he realizes that the only true validation he needs comes from inside, that he's the real Master, etc., etc. Along the way, the film offers a surprisingly prescient depiction of the cross pollination of New York's still nascent hip-hop culture as well as a pretty sophisticated critique of the absurdity of even well-meaning stereotypes. There's also some stuff with Vanity and a bizarre subplot about music videos, but that's really just there for the Berry Gordy-produced film to showcase some new Motown musical acts.
In the midst of this, Carry plays Sho'Nuff, another martial artist and Leroy's rival for Harlem Kung-Fu Supremacy! (See what I mean about the blaxploitation movies? How friggin' cool is that? I mean, how much better would every single Tyler Perry or John Singleton movie be if, at some point, there was a subplot involving the battle for Harlem Kung-Fu Supremacy?) Unlike Leroy, however, Sho'Nuff doesn't display slavish devotion to traditional martial-arts mores, nor does he have the doting familial support of the title character.
On the contrary, Sho'Nuff appears to be self-taught and has cobbled together his costume and style based on nothing but hard work and diligence. Even his name, Sho'Nuff, is a play on the word "shogun" and reflects the mosaic of influences he draws from as well as his wit--a sense of wit that would have precluded his falling for the "trick" that dumb-ass Leroy is the victim of for the entire movie, by the way. Sho'Nuff is a self-made man. Sho'Nuff is hip-hop. Sho'Nuff is The American Dream. Yeah, I know it sounds stupid, but really, go watch The Last Dragon and think about who really reflects the can-do spirit of the nation? I always liked Sho'Nuff the best and thought the movie gave him a raw deal.
Yes, some of it was based on some teenage-boy haterade focused toward Taimak and his pretty-boy ass. Yes, I laugh out loud, to this day, when the "Let's Wait Awhile" video comes on and Janet Jackson turns her head when he tries to kiss her. Yes, when he played the date rapist on A Very Special Episode of A Different World, I pointed at the TV and said, "I knew that dude was shady!"
But, all of that aside, Sho'Nuff has a special place in my heart because he represents the first moment when I watched something and realized that, perhaps, there was something more going on than what the filmmakers meant to put on the screen. In a very real way, the character of Sho'Nuff introduced me to the concepts of subtext, theme, and allusion. Understand, I know how completely ridiculous it sounds, but the character prompted me to be more critical of art just in time for hip-hop and Spike Lee and Toni Morrison to come into my life. And I love the fact that, when popular culture and hip-hop and critics do discuss The Last Dragon, like me, they focus on the character of Sho'Nuff. And I'm glad that Julius Carry got to live to see that, ultimately, Sho'Nuff was the true Master.
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