“Solidarity” explores concurrent social movements in another powerful and timely episode.
This recap of Kung Fu season 1, episode 5, “Solidarity”, contains spoilers.
After last week’s powerful focus on workplace sexual abuse and the culture of shame and silence that surrounds its victims, it was clearer than ever that Kung Fu had more on its mind than just punches and high kicks and mythological weapons. “Solidarity” is clearer still. With the overarching plot largely backgrounded, Kung Fu episode 5 focuses on an officer-involved shooting that claims the life of an unarmed Black teen and sends shockwaves through the community, while also imperiling the Shen family and their business out of simple proximity – and, of course, the fact that none of them are white.
When you consider the episode in its totality, the opening scene, which finds Nicky and Henry “training”, now clearly more than friends since they enjoyed a celebratory smooch after finding the missing magical scabbard last week, is almost ill-fitting. After being interrupted, they get back on track, determining that what unites all the weapons is an old Chinese legend and the tell-tale green glow of volcanic obsidian, which I thought was black, but what do I know?
This is about as much of the overarching plot as “Solidarity” concerns itself with. Instead, the focus turns to Andre Durant (Henry C. King), a 19-year-old Black skateboarder shot and killed by the police following reports of a suspected robbery at Wong’s Jewelry. While storylines about systemic racism and unlawful police killings aren’t exactly rare on network television these days, Kung Fu episode 5 is refreshingly frank about it. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t vaguely alluded to but features explicitly. The biased nature of media reporting – Andre did a stint in juvie, but he currently packs groceries to pay his way through community college, though only the former fact is included in the stories of his death – is lambasted; the involvement of Wong’s creates an obvious parallel between anti-Black and anti-Asian prejudice. A peaceful protest, orchestrated in large part by Ryan’s new boyfriend, Joe, is treated as a riot by an overeager police force, and after tear gas is used to enforce a curfew, many of the protestors, including Joe, are taken by Ryan to shelter in the family restaurant with Mei-Li, Jin, Nicky, Althea, and Henry.
What’s most interesting about “Solidarity” is how it presents a complex counter viewpoint to what’s happening on the streets. Most network TV is unashamedly liberal, and in many ways so is Kung Fu, but it’s also a reminder that it’s possible and reasonable to have complicated opinions about complicated topics. In a culture of zero-sum politics, where social media and the threat of being “canceled” strips nuance from every issue, Mei-Li’s earnest anger at her own store windows being spray-painted with “JUSTICE 4 ANDRE”, and her fear that opening their doors to the protestors will needlessly make a target of them, is not just welcome but vital.
But Mei-Li isn’t hostile. The guests are well looked after. When Evan arrives to inform Nicky that the police are on their way with a warrant to arrest Joe for incitement to riot, everyone stands together. It’s the big moment of Kung Fu episode 5, and while it’s a bit unbelievable that the police would simply leave even after being shown incontrovertible proof of Joe’s innocence, the overall effect of the titular Black-Asian solidarity has enough emotional power to get by. And it’s also important on a character level. The similarities between Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate aren’t treated as coincidences but logical connections between social movements born of systemic racial oppression; oppression that has existed a long time. Mei-Li’s story about the abuse that she and Jin received when they first opened the restaurant cracks a window into her chilly demeanor. As she says herself, even in 2021, it doesn’t seem like things have changed much – people can still hate you simply for being Chinese. There’s no wonder she’s annoyed all the time.
Kung Fu season 1, episode 5 tokenistically ends with a development in the overarching plot, with a lead confirming a weapon in South America that also glows green. But with everything that happened prior to it, the potentially world-saving quest at the show’s core is becoming the least interesting thing about it.