Into the Badlands Emmy Snub and Hollywood’s Misunderstanding of Martial Arts Action

Yes. This is another post about Into the Badlands. Here are some other things I’ve written about the show.

Let me get right to it: the Emmys announced their nominations for 2018, and Into the Badlands was snubbed completely. Forget the fact that they have some of the most amazing, beautiful, and original costume, makeup, and overall character designs you’ll see anywhere. Or the fact that they have some incredible production design, set pieces, music, and cinematography. All of those areas – and more, like, you know, acting – would have been well-deserving for Into the Badlands to at the very least have earned a nomination, much less a win. And I’m sad that such an original, diverse, and engaging show, and all the incredibly talented people in front of and behind the scenes missed out on all that recognition.

But I cannot. For the life of me. Understand how it did not even earn a nomination for Stunt Coordination! The show’s lead, Daniel Wu, seems to share the same bafflement:

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So I’m writing this post to try to understand. And I have a few very frustrated thoughts.

Thought #1: Hollywood Does Not Understand Action
At least, not in the same way China and Hong Kong understand action: Chinese action emphasizes the on-screen performer’s actual physical abilities. Hollywood action emphasizes plot and editing. I’ve written about this Chinese approach before; an approach fully and faithfully undertaken with Into the Badlands. The first show of its kind – as far as I’m aware – to do so on American television.

Part of this disconnect has got to be cultural. The United States simply does not share the cultural richness of a martial arts tradition like the one we see in China and Hong Kong. China has kung fu and wushu more generally; epic stories told thousands of years ago with archetypical heroes we still see today; a Chinese operatic tradition that continues to impact modern day martial arts cinema – and Hollywood – aesthetics; as well as all kinds of intersecting values and ideals (such as those that define and evolve around ideas of masculinity, for example) that are organically integrated into their culture which find their roots in martial arts-related concepts. I think the closest thing the US/Hollywood has would be something like the Western? Maybe

Regardless, the simple fact is that – at least to most viewers primarily familiar with Hollywood film and television – the priorities and conceptual framework for action and stunt coordination are wholly different from those of Into the Badlands in particular, and Chinese martial arts more generally. Most viewers simply don’t know what they don’t know about the action they’re seeing on display in Into the Badlands.

I’m trying to think of an analogy, and I keep thinking about DJs. There are some people who ask “Do you know any DJs?” and what they’re looking for are the people who say “I’m a DJ,” but all they really do is show up at a party with their iTunes plugged into some speakers and play through a possibly personally curated list of tracks. And a lot of people are fine with that. And yes, we call that person a DJ. But that’s also not at all what a DJ is/can be. That’s how I’m feeling right now! Like someone just put out a list of “Outstanding DJs,” and the only people on that list are your neighbor Kevin and your kid’s friend’s dad Gary.

Thought #2: Coordination vs Choreography
I think there’s a difference between Coordination and Choreography, and perhaps part of the frustration of the snub comes from conflating the two. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Hong Kong Film Awards have an award titled “Best Action Choreography,” which has been given out since the 1980s. However, the category Into the Badlands would have most likely been nominated for is “Outstanding Stunt Coordination.” But the show does so much more.

Nearly every single show features stunts, as a glance through the list of nominees and winners for the award over the years clearly shows. That’s why a show like ER, House, or Malcolm in the Middle (yes, really) can get nominated for Stunt Coordination. Does a character need to fall on and break a dinner table? That’s a stunt. Does a character jump/get thrown through a window? That’s a stunt. Is there a dramatic scuffle that ends with someone tumbling down some steps? That’s a stunt. Is there an explosion of any kind? And are there any people nearby? Both stunts. And they all need to be coordinated! People with special skills and often hard-earned knowledge need to figure out a way to depict some kind of action on screen that will: keep all main performers as safe as possible from physical harm, be faithful to the script, fulfill the director and cinematographer’s demands, and ultimately look convincing/cool/entertaining/dramatic. That’s hard work, and I do not mean to in any way diminish the incredible work these men and women do! They should definitely be celebrated and receive critical acclaim.

However, if I were a betting man, I’d bet some of the greatest Hollywood stunt coordinators would have no idea how to stage, physically block, light, determine camera positions, or edit a martial arts sequence involving up to and over a dozen fighters, various actual and makeshift weapons, and/or shifting terrain. And that’s not a bad thing! It’s not their business to know that! BUT, those things do get at how I think Action/Stunt Choreography is somewhat different from Action/Stunt Coordination. There are definitely overlaps. But there are also ways in which they are uniquely different.

And what the amazing team on Into the Badlands accomplishes is nothing if not “uniquely different.” They train, they practice, they create wholly original sequences of physical movements that, among other things: can involve upwards of a dozen performers or more; has to play to the individual and unique strengths of the particular performer; creatively incorporates production design, set design, props, costumes, hair and makeup, as well as other elements of the filmmaking process into the action itself; moves the plot forward; showcases/reveals the particular qualities of the character fighting, which is related to but different from the strengths/qualitites of the performer portraying said character; and so. much. more.

Interestingly, the Emmys dohave an “Outstanding Choreography” category, but the nominees and winners are almost exclusively relegated to dance choreography. If you ask me, Into the Badlands actually belongs in this category as well, maybe even more so than Stunt Coordination. But I’m not sure that the Emmys are quite there culturally to accept that.

I wrote a paper back in my M.A. days discussing the similarities between the aesthetics of Chinese martial arts cinema and classic Hollywood musicals like Top HatSingin in the Rain, etc. And I think the comparison still holds true. I may need to revisit that as an upcoming blog post…

Thought #3: Insider Advantage?
Hollywood awards shows have long been criticized for their self-celebratory nature, popularity contest nature, and their tendency to give in to industry politics over a product’s quality. But in my admittedly brief research for writing this, I did notice something. Marvel’s The Punisher was nominated for Stunt Coordination, with Thom Williams credited as the Stunt Coordinator. I did love that show, and the action coordination was good. But, again, wholly different from what Into the Badlands accomplishes every single week. Thom Williams is also one of the Board of Governors Stunt Representatives for the Television Academy, which hosts the Emmys. Is that ok? Is there not a conflict of interest there? Again, his work was awesome. But what gives? OR is there a Netflix advantage/love thing going on? Because apparently Luke Cage won this award last year for the show’s first season, which, as I recall, had pretty unoriginal – but still fun and well-made – action pieces. Siiiiiiigh, what is going on?!


Thought #4: Is the show ahead of its time? Aka #EmmysSoWhite
Yeah, I’m pulling the race card. What gives? It’s 2018, and Sandra Oh just became the first Asian actress nominated for a lead role in a drama series. Yes, that’s awesome and long overdue. But Into the Badlands has got to be one of – if not THE MOST – diverse show on American television right now. And I mean that in not only the incredible ethnic/cultural diversity of its cast, but also its creators, producers, and below-the-line workers. Not to mention the diversity of its aesthetics, if we want to go there. But maybe it’s too much for some. It’s hard not to recall the terribly racist treatment Bruce Lee received in the making of the 1970s American show Kung Fu. Lee acknowledged the industry execs’ concerns with casting an Asian lead in the 70s, when instead they cast David Carradine as a Shaolin monk. I mean, a thousand thank yous to the execs who greenlit Into the Badlands. But maybe too many people are not quite ready for it in 2018 either.

Best worst-case scenario prediction? The show gets canceled much too soon, but goes on to be understood, appreciated, and written about for what it is: a groundbreaking show on so many levels that will ultimately influence future shows in ways we can’t yet see. I know I will.

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3 thoughts on “Into the Badlands Emmy Snub and Hollywood’s Misunderstanding of Martial Arts Action

  1. Totally agree with all your points but especially the comparison to Hollywood musicals. In both genres, the audience is primarily interested in the physical performances of the stars, their unique skills and charisma which set them apart. Story is only a framework to fit these numbers in. Story & character development are far less important in these genres when considering whether a movie is ‘good’. The performance skills and the choreography are paramount.

  2. I feel you peeps on this but at least James Lew got an Emmy for Luke Cage. Maybe that’s a start. James Lew is a legend. I know very slow momentum, but hopefully it will change

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