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It took a heroic effort by Emerson professor Rae Shaw to create ‘Black Kung Fu Chick’

Rae Shaw's "Black Kung Fu Chick" was inspired by her longtime love of martial arts films. "When I was a kid, I wished there were more Black heroines ... but there weren’t really any women of color — except for these martial artists.”
Rae Shaw's "Black Kung Fu Chick" was inspired by her longtime love of martial arts films. "When I was a kid, I wished there were more Black heroines ... but there weren’t really any women of color — except for these martial artists.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“Black Kung Fu Chick” was never meant to be a show about an action hero. Emerson College professor Rae Shaw originally set out to tell a story about a young Black woman from South Los Angeles who reminded her of “a lot of young Black women.” She wanted to tell a story of strength, the desire to protect, and the desire to belong. But, as Shaw’s Web series reveals, a Black woman taking control of her power is a heroic feat.

“Young Black women struggle with this idea of balancing a lot of the obligations and needs that their community might have with their own individual desires and dreams that they’re trying to sell,” said Shaw. “That’s what ‘Black Kung Fu Chick’ explores.”

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Rae Shaw's 10-episode Web series "Black Kung Fu Chick" took eight years to bring to fruition.
Rae Shaw's 10-episode Web series "Black Kung Fu Chick" took eight years to bring to fruition.Courtesy of Rae Shaw

The 10-episode Web series follows Tasha, a high schooler who learns kung fu from a teacher who is grieving the death of his wife. There is no dramatic romantic tension, the main character is a Black girl, and she saves herself time and time again. It’s not a traditional plotline, but it was the story Shaw needed to tell.

After eight years of writing, filming, fund-raising, and getting in her “own way,” Shaw’s “Black Kung Fu Chick” premiered at the SlamDance Film Festival in February. It’s still rotating through the festival circuit, but Shaw hopes the series will reach a wider audience on YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu in the next year. Shaw is also creating a “Black Kung Fu Chick” comic, game app, and interactive blog, all of which will be made available when the series is launched.

“I just really wanted to tell a story about a young Black girl in South LA,” said Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts. “It’s taken a while, but I’m so glad people can finally see it.”

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To fully understand “Black Kung Fu Chick” and how it came to be, it’s important to understand Shaw and the influence of Emerson College.

Moving to Boston in 2018 was critical to getting her work produced. An affiliation with Emerson meant her project had the means to grow.

“I’ve witnessed that Black women have had mobility when they work with institutions,” said Shaw, who previously worked as an instructor at New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. “It was part of the reason I came to Emerson. I was able to apply for grants that helped to fund the projects that I could not get off the ground, even after crowdfunding.”

The talent of the student body came in handy too. Danielle Marascalchi, a graphic artist and recent graduate, had been a student in one of Shaw’s film courses — “the best one I’ve taken at Emerson” — during her last semester. The success of her final project for that class led to her first freelance gig. Last June, Shaw reached out to Marascalchi to design the title sequence and promotional material for the series.

“[Shaw] was obviously so passionate about the project but still really open to my ideas,” said Marascalchi. “She’s in love with the project — and you can tell just by talking to her.”

To say “Black Kung Fu Chick” is a passion project is putting it mildly. So much of Shaw and her lived experiences are embedded in the series. She started envisioning the show right after film school, almost a decade ago in LA — but the roots of the plot and the roots of Tasha began with Shaw’s childhood love of ’70s martial arts movies.

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“As a kid, I felt really inspired by female martial artists,” Shaw said. “When I was a kid, I wished there were more Black heroines. There were shows like ‘Wonder Woman,’ but there weren’t really any women of color — except for these martial artists.”

The 8mm camera work (inspired by those martial arts movies) is one of the first things viewers will notice. So much of TV today is in pristine focus — you can see every wrinkle, freckle, misplaced hair — but Shaw’s work is blurry.

Tasha’s meeting with her mentor, Mr. Jian, her confrontation with bullies, and even just the way she’s framed walking down the street read like an old Bruce Lee flick. But it’s Shaw’s influences that pull the plot toward modernity.

Shaw derived much of Tasha’s character from her younger self. Tasha is 18 and has always wanted to be a doctor, but when she flunks out of one of her premed classes right before graduation she’s forced into summer school with her old math and science teacher, Mr. Jian. The series follows their relationship, as Mr. Jian grieves the loss of his wife and Tasha figures out how to care for those around her. What results is the study and teaching of white crane kung fu, tai chi, and qigong.

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“Tasha really reflects a lot of my struggles,” said Shaw, who spent years balancing family, an evolving career, and her passion for this project, all while trying to get the series produced. “She is a person who has felt that there’s a need to fight. But there’s another side of her which is magical and full of peace. She spends a lot of the series reflecting on these two sides of who she is.”

As Shaw moved back and forth across the country, receiving no after no, hitting fund-raising goals only to see that money not to be enough, tai chi has been her constant, her source of peace. The conversations she’s had with her tai chi mentors and the tranquility that it provides are a mirror of Tasha’s emotional relationship with kung fu.

While tai chi is a Chinese martial art form known for meditation and self-defense, the chi from which it’s derived is known as the energy of life itself. Practicing chi means learning to balance that energy, positive and negative, yin and yang. Actress Taylor Polidore, who plays Tasha in the series, had to achieve a level of chi before attempting to embody the young heroine.

“I could totally relate to Tasha,” Polidore said during a recent call from her home in Los Angeles. “I thought I was going into this project to learn one thing, and I ended up learning all these things about energy and centering yourself.”

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When Shaw taught at the New York Film Academy, she met several young Black women who captivated her. Tasha’s story in some ways was an opportunity for Shaw to imagine a future for those women.

“I just wanted to have some part in seeing how they go out into the world and find themselves and live out their dreams,” said Shaw.

After creating such a nuanced character, it was important to Shaw not to have her series pigeonholed. She was “very aware of ‘Karate Kid’ ” and similar kid-learns-kung-fu-and-confronts-bully tropes.

“So the trick of the show — because there had to be a trick to it — is Tasha thinks she’s learning kung fu, but she’s actually learning how to cultivate her chi,” Shaw said. “What her teacher is really trying to help her to do is to become a healer, which is actually what she wants.”

“Black Kung Fu Chick” is about that chi — it’s part action-hero story, part old kung fu plot, part finding peace.

“That’s really the core of the story,” said Shaw. “Young Black women and young women of color struggle with this idea of balancing the obligations and needs of their community with their own individual desires and dreams.”


Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at natachi.onwuamaegbu@globe.com.