There’s a scene early in the 1985 martial arts film The Last Dragon that features a variety of New Yorkers at a screening of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Bikers, breakdancers, brawlers, and a young man known as Bruce Leroy are watching, shouting, and even fighting along with the martial arts classic, before it’s all broken up by the meanest, the prettiest, the baddest mofo low down around this town… the Shogun of Harlem. As cartoonish and wonderful as that scene may be, it was based on an actual screening of the Bruce Lee film that screenwriter Louis Venosta attended with his then-girlfriend on the 10th anniversary of the icon’s passing in 1983.
“Have you seen this guy Bruce Lee?” Venosta recalls asking her before heading to a Times Square theater to join a crowd of fans that he compares to another cult classic. “It was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where everybody was dressed in those kung fu suits and the shoes, they were carrying on mock fights in the aisles, it was a lot like that scene in the movie,” he tells us. “They all knew the words to the movie, they were all saying the words out loud and I looked at my girlfriend and said, ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’ And she said, ‘I think I’m seeing what you’re seeing.’”
What they saw became the inspiration for Venosta’s next writing project. The former Fame dancer had already written two screenplays for “very serious dramas,” one of which earned him a Writer’s Guild of America fellowship. This time, however, he was inspired to write for the stage. He told his girlfriend that he saw the kung fu as the dancing in a “hilarious Broadway musical.” Fortunately she saw the bigger picture.
“She said, ‘Are you stupid? It’s a movie. Don’t do it as a show. It’s a movie,’” Venosta remembers. “We were walking and I said, ‘So, who’s the guy?’ I was running through names of friends of mine from Brooklyn and I said, ‘Leroy.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, Bruce Leroy.’ I was actually reading the Shogun novel and I thought, okay, it’s Bruce Leroy and the Shogun of Harlem. I’m going to make it a Brooklyn-Harlem thing. Six weeks later, it was written. The kung fu movie structure was obvious. It was one of the easiest things, honestly, I ever wrote.”
He had the movie theater scene, a hero who was teased for being different, a tough bad guy from the other side of town, and then the “shaggy dog story,” about how the hero had to embark on a journey before realizing what he sought was in front of him the whole time. The rest of the story came from Venosta’s own multi-racial background, as he describes himself as “one of these guys who’s always floating on the periphery of all these cultural tribes.” That’s evident from the concept of a black man obsessed with Bruce Lee’s talents, philosophies, and style, as well as secondary characters like the three jive-talkin’ Chinese Sum Dum Goy employees, who spend their time on the street, lip-syncing to “Sukiyaki Hot Saki Sue.”
“I was always very cognizant of the culture swapping that went on,” Venosta says. “I always thought it was funny, in this particular case you had these black and Hispanic guys who had embraced this Chinese hero. You’d walk through Chinatown and you’d see Chinese guys breakdancing. It was New York but it was also my particular eye for this kind of cultural phenomenon of the culture swapping. I was friends with guys like Mario Van Peebles at the time. We were all sort of part of a little group. We always talked about those blaxploitation films; there was always that dialogue. And I went, but they’re all bad guys. There really should be a young black kid superhero-type figure who kids can look up to with a positive aspirational thing.”
Venosta wrote the screenplay to be his directorial debut, although his version wouldn’t have been so over the top as the movie we know. After finishing the screenplay in six weeks, it took Venosta’s agent four weeks to sell it to a producer named Suzanne de Passe, who brought Motown into the loop. The next thing Venosta knew, he was on a flight to Los Angeles to meet with Berry Gordy.
“It was interesting,” Venosta says of meeting the music legend whose name would eventually be attached to the title of the film. After spending a few weeks living in Gordy’s Bel Air estate, Venosta moved into a place with director Michael Schultz so they could begin their rewrites. The writer’s version would have differed mostly in style, as his Shogun character would have been “a tough dude from Harlem,” and not a guy wearing ridiculous shoulder pads and those awesome ‘80s glasses. However, as he looks back on the film 31 years later, he admits that it might not have had the same success and cult following without those changes. But he still knew his idea was gold.
“I always thought the movie would be a big hit.”