Last year for Black History Month, I marathoned as many 1970s Blaxploitation classics, deep cuts, and spoofs as I could stomach. This year, though, there’s only one movie I want to recommend. A few days before writing this, I rewatched the 1999 Jim Jarmusch indie cult classic, Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai, for the first time in something like 10 years. I yammered about it so much that my girlfriend told me to pitch my editor just to shut me up.
Here’s why this quirky mishmash of hood, mafia, and samurai movie tropes electrified my brain: Despite coming out 25 years ago and completely bewildering contemporary audiences, Ghost Dog perfectly captured the hip-hop zeitgeist of the 2020s, predicting the rise of the dominance of Black geekdom over pop culture. At the same time, it offered a singular snapshot of its moment in time and nodded to a long legacy of Black weirdoes who refused to follow any code but their own.
The film revolves around the eponymous Ghost Dog, an iconoclastic mafia hitman played by Forest Whitaker. Ghost Dog is inspired by the samurai code of honor, as represented by a copy of Hagakure, a collection of commentaries recorded by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 18th century, which Ghost Dog always carries around with him and regularly recites from throughout the film. He also practices swordsmanship on a rooftop and communicates primarily by carrier pigeon. Early reviews pondered the character’s potential mental illness; I choose to think that these critics were simply unfamiliar with the concept of the Black nerd.
Ghost Dog has declared himself the “retainer” for Louie, a low-level wiseguy who he believes saved his life. After a hit goes wrong, Louie’s gang is ordered to kill Ghost Dog, prompting the assassin to fight back – but not for the reasons you might think. The film is by turns chaotically violent, quietly philosophical, and darkly hilarious, and you might be as surprised by some of its moments of tenderness as thrilled by its innovative brutality. There are subtle literary allusions, powerful thematic resonances, and a hell of a head-nodding soundtrack.
The latter first drew me to Ghost Dog the year after it came out in just a handful of theaters. I’d read online that the soundtrack was produced by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, and being in the middle of my hardcore backpacker era, I was immediately sold once I learned its premise. In 2000, I was also knee-deep into that phase so many of us go through when we are obsessed with Japanese culture and media – especially anime.
Unfortunately, around this time, the concept of “anime” in the US was a little hazier than it is now. Just reading the term here, you probably immediately thought of examples like Attack On Titan, Full Metal Alchemist, or My Hero Academia. Back then, it’d have only drawn blank stares from the overwhelming majority of the general population.
To view “Japanimation,” as it was cringingly called back then, you had to “know a guy” who could get you “fansubs” – VHS tapes hand-edited to add English subtitles. These were translated by hobbyists and transmitted in a legally dubious process of distribution to specialty shops in heavily Asian neighborhoods (the nearest one for me was in a deeply racist part of Orange County, meaning I literally risked my life at times to get my anime fix, while today, it’s as easy as logging into Netflix).
To make matters worse, there were few, if any, other “otaku” (the Japanese word for geek, used by Americans for anime fans) in my circle of acquaintances, coming from Compton and going to school in Long Beach. Today, we call them “weebs” and they basically run pop culture. Rappers shoot anime-style music videos and regularly reference terms like “Super Saiyan.” Megan Thee Stallion is presenting at Crunchyroll’s Anime Awards in Japan this year. Lil Uzi Vert is basically an anime character in real life.
Basically, being really into Japanese pop culture meant that you basically were Ghost Dog, in a way. Throughout the movie, multiple characters note how unusual he is for adhering to a way of life that had long been extinct and seemed to be at odds with his existence in a blue-collar neighborhood in New Jersey interacting with Crips, Bloods, and undocumented Haitian ice cream truck drivers. In a touch of irony, even his guidebook, Hagakure, was written at a time when samurai were by and large going out of fashion in a modernizing Japan. I may or may not have had my own copy, inspired by the film.
Yet there had always been people like this, who used nostalgia for bygone eras and intense passion for far-away cultures to fortify themselves for life spent in lower-class America. Take RZA, who makes a cameo appearance in the film in addition to producing its soundtrack (an underrated gem from his catalog, by the way). His love for kung-fu movies and Zen philosophy not only inspired him and protected him from the worst of what the hood can do to a young Black person but it also formed the foundation of his future prosperity with Wu-Tang.
Likewise, if you ask any of today’s young Black geeks, they’ll tell you how they relate to the medium’s many tales of overcoming adversity through self-belief and constant improvement. The cyclical nature of some of the medium’s most popular properties like Jujustu Kaisen, Demon Slayer, or Bleach resonates with them as they face the challenges of similar cycles of inner-city violence, personal prejudice, or systemic injustice.
Today, a Ghost Dog could walk past you at the subway station or the grocery store, and you might not bat an eye. At most, you’d shrug, but even if you didn’t understand, you’d get it. That’s what makes them happy. That’s how they get through the day. That’s what keeps them going. Cosplay (dressing up as your favorite character for conventions, exhibitions, and photoshoots) is nearly as commonplace as wearing a jersey to a ballgame (which, when you think about it, is basically just sports nerd cosplay).
Ghost Dog’s respectful interactions with the gangbangers in the film offer of microcosm of this perspective – and a reflection of how it really felt back then, being surrounded by guys up to their necks in turf wars who simply acknowledged my weird hobby and left me alone. Wearing blue or red could be dangerous where I’m from, but a Dragon Ball Z T-shirt was like a neutral flag. They didn’t get it, but they got it.
Even in 2000, the winds were shifting. By the end of the decade, a lot of those same guys were asking me for spoilers for the next episode of Dragon Ball. And by the 2010s, hip-hop had been infiltrated on a national level by artists who wholeheartedly embraced anime and manga (the comic book counterpart of anime) on their album covers and in their lyrics.
Lupe Fiasco won a Grammy in 2008 for “Daydreamin’,” a song in which he imagines his project building as a mecha, or giant robot (and has for the past few years, run around practicing with a literal samurai sword on his social media). Then, Nicki Minaj began calling herself the Harajuku Barbie and rocking pink wigs and anime-inspired fashions. Now, Denzel Curry, Juice WRLD, and Lil Uzi Vert all have songs titled “Super Saiyan” and Ski Mask The Slump God name-drops Naruto in his song “Catch Me Outside.”
Doja Cat’s “Like That” video references Sailor Moon’s iconic transformation sequences, Megan Thee Stallion performed in Japan in Sailor Moon cosplay, and Saweetie and I took a good five minutes out of a fifteen-minute interview about her Champion endorsement to talk about Sailor Moon instead. Thundercat sports a “Dragonball Durag” with Guapdad 4000 and Smino. Big Sean once introduced his mom to the voice actor who plays Dragon Ball main character Goku. Just a few days ago, I marveled at J Hus’ animated video for “Cream.” Even Drake has found some subtle (and low-key weird) ways to express his appreciation for the art form.
Watching Ghost Dog again, it was clear how it fits into the slow build from then to now. In the film, Ghost Dog bequeaths his knowledge in the form of his treasured book to another young outsider, his neighbor Pearline. In much the same way, the film itself feels like it’s passed down its appreciation of outsiders to the next generation. Critics at the time seemed baffled; in my research, I’ve come across dozens of audience reactions that suggest many who watched it felt the same. It may not have been a massive hit (although it surprisingly made triple its budget at the global box office and has since been included in the Criterion Collection), but those who needed it undoubtedly found it and found themselves validated by it.
The film affirmed Black nerds of the time both by acknowledging that they existed and by confirming that Black nerds always had. In doing so, it’s not a far cry to believe that it made it okay for them (okay, fine, us) to keep going, to keep being weird, to keep marching to the beat of a drum no one else could hear. It certainly helped make it clear that this demographic existed; there are now anime featuring Black characters created by Black people such as proto-anime The Boondocks, and Yasuke, which was co-written by Flying Lotus and is about, yes, a Black samurai. Ghost Dog’s path may have been a solitary one, but he also blazed a trail, and now, legions are following in his footsteps.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.