Sunday night was the season finale of Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure, and it went out with a super-charming tribute to 1985 cult classic The Last Dragon. For fictional Issa’s birthday, her best friend Molly takes her to an outdoor screening of the movie, which follows Leroy Green (aka Bruce Leroy), a Black martial artist who seeks the power of “the Glow,” a mystical power only attainable by martial arts masters. In his way is brutal rival Sho’nuff, an increasingly aggressive fighter who seeks to defeat Leroy and achieve mastery himself. The film features elements of martial arts and blaxploitation films with their tropes turned up to eleven and messed with liberally; fittingly, Issa and her friends completely nerd out over it. As much as the show has continued to lean on Twitter memes and social media discourse — something for which it has garnered praise and reasonable criticism — a quick break for something as simple as enjoying a movie was pleasant.
It wasn’t just a passing reference, either. The episode features multiple clips of the film, including the opening scene of a sweaty Taimak as Leroy training in a nondescript brick-walled location. The Insecure characters lovingly comment on the movie, and encapsulate what a modern-day audience might think: “It’s sexist as fuck, but I love it.” The show has always made a point of giving nods to classics in Black TV and cinema, including this season’s totally absurd show-within-a-show-cum-fictional-reboot, Kev’yn, featuring Black sitcom alums Erika Alexander and Bill Bellamy. The Last Dragon in particular is a fun pick, as it was also in talks for a remake in the aughts that never quite happened. The original featured plenty of silly cross-cultural exchange moments played for laughs. While some of the language hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s an early example of a work that properly acknowledges and honors the connection between Black and Asian creators. It also featured genuinely entertaining fight scenes and a slew of forever-quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “Direct-a your feets-a to Daddy Green’s Pizza,” as well as one of the most iconic villains in black cinema — the characters in Insecure all chant “Sho’nuff!” whenever they get an excuse to for a reason.
During the finale, the characters recapped the dating decisions they’d made throughout the season and the ways they’ve tried (successfully or not) to do better. It’s been a lot of trial and error and ugly, embarrassing moments for them — and despite each character making active efforts to make better decisions, there are still clear professional and personal knots they still have to untangle. Issa finds herself face-to-face with Nathan, a serious romantic interest who suddenly and distressingly ghosted her and disappeared for a month, and makes the healthy choice of telling him she needs some time to think. It’s not quite the Glow, but self-respect is a power in its own right.
Following this is a scene of Issa finally unpacking her apartment to completion, something she’s been trying to do for the entire eight-episode season. In the backdrop is an episode highlight, a 2018 remix of Willie Hutch’s “The Glow” the original soundtrack, which features a disco-inspired drumline and a stirring synth-wrapped bass line, underscored by the whiplike sound effects you often hear in martial arts films. In The Last Dragon, the original version of the song played during a VJ set by Leroy’s love interest Laura, interspersed with gratuitous shots of lightning and Bruce Lee clips. The remix by Victoria Monet, is a big, energetic song with updated lyrics, opening with, “Now that I got my shit figured out, no one else could ever stop me.”
It’s perfect for this private, intimate moment in Issa’s inner universe — one where she’s just getting shit done, for herself, because it needs to be done. It fits right in with the major themes of the show — figuring shit out as a 20-something. Music supervisor Raphael Saadiq has made a point of showcasing black indie artists, and “The Glow” is love letter to a canon of black art, as well as a love letter from Issa to herself.