The Movies I’ve Seen Recently, Arbitrarily Arranged Into A Sequence Emphasizing The Extent To Which They Each Deal With The Subject of the Appropriation of Culture, part one

The Karate Kid, via the netflix

I was mildly surprised to find that The Karate Kid is a pretty okay movie. It manages not to overdo the rich WASP girl / poor Italian boy subplot and little touches like the sweeping vertigo of the wide-open architecture when Daniel enters upper class social spaces, or the way he loses her at “golf n’ stuff” but gets her back at “pizza n’ stuff” wink at the conventions without sacrificing their poignancy. The real heart of the movie, though, is the Miyagi and Daniel-san relationship, and here too, they manage to take the best from the “guru and wayward youth” narrative without letting the clichés overcome the characters. This was the biggest surprise for me: while Mr. Miyagi certainly became his own kind of cliché at some point, he’s also, to put it bluntly, a great character. Seriously, compare him to the myriads of variations on that role; he’s much, much better than most. His strength is tempered with humor, his pain with joy. He’s human in a way that most such characters simply are not; he discovers, he learns, he thinks, and he feels.

And this is why the movie works, I think: it might ultimately solve its problems with happy clichés — outsiders banding together and defeating the exclusionary insiders with the power of their moral virtue — but it makes you understand why those clichés work by showing both the human pain of their failure. After all, wrapped around the core of the movie’s happy narrative about the wise old Asian sensei teaching the cool white kid to kick his opponents’ asses is a movie about why it sucks when white privilege establishes itself by rigging the game against racial minorities and cheats to prevent them from even getting in the door. It’s a movie that knows how good America can be because it starts by remembering how poorly this country can serve its immigrants when chooses. It’s a nostalgia piece that reminds us of the time America’s greatest generation built concentration camps, and it lives in that friction.