With his perfectly styled Afro, cool bop walk and smart-aleck mouth, martial artist and actor Jim Kelly, who died from cancer on Saturday at the age of 67, was a seventies screen sensation who became an icon. Emerging during the era when Black action heroes Sweetback, Shaft and Super Fly were stickin’ it to the man, Kelly was born in Millersburg, Kentucky. A skilled athlete, he began his martial-arts studies in Lexington, got his black belt while living in San Diego, and later played professional tennis on the Senior Men's Circuit. He debuted as an actor in Melinda (1972), in which he played the karate instructor of star Calvin Lockhart. But it was his role as Williams in Enter the Dragon that introduced him the world.
As an uptown Harlem boy growing-up in the seventies, I had the pleasure of seeing most of Kelly's films at a decaying movie palace on 147th Street and Broadway called the Tapia. It was like another home for my friends and me. Every weekend we got the seventy-five cent admission fee from our parents, who were more than happy to be rid of us for a few hours, and went as a group to see the latest blaxplotation and karate flick double features. The Tapia was the kind of theater that really didn’t pay much attention to the ratings system as it applied to kids, which was why at ten-years-old we were watching the R-rated Enter the Dragon. Although most of the audience was already fans of karate king Bruce Lee, when Kelly swaggered onscreen, the audience of mostly young Black and Latino males erupted in applause. Although Kelly’s character got killed, his powerful presence lived in our imaginations long after the credits faded.
“He uttered my favorite line—right before he got killed by the master villain,” says novelist Chris Chambers. “When he says, ‘Man, you're straight outta a comic book,’ that was classic.”
My friend Scott LaRoc, a Brooklyn native and movie aficionado who saw Enter the Dragon at the Metropolitan Theater opening weekend, said: “For young Black men growing-up in the seventies, Jim Kelly became somebody to look up to. Of course, we already had Richard Roundtree, Max Julian and Ron O’Neal, but Jim Kelly had a different kind of style and cool.”
Novelist Robert Fleming agrees. “It helped his cool rating with his appearance with Lee, because everybody knew Lee was the best of the best.”
Artist Fab 5 Freddy, whose paintings are currently is a show called "Kung-Fu Wildstyle" at the Furman Gallery, says, "Jim Kelly was that soul bro with the Afro Sheen fro that solidified the hood's deep infatuation with kung fu." He says that the karate master's 1974 film Black Belt Jones "...solidified the close connection between two of cinemas most original and impactful genres."
Portland State University professor and pop culture geek Walidah Imarisha says, “I feel like I actually learned the nucleus for many of my political ideologies from Jim Kelly movies. Seeing the solidarity and connection between Kelly and Bruce Lee, the commonality of people of color's experiences was encapsulated so well in the line by Kelly: ‘Ghettos are the same all over the world. They stink.’ Seeing that, our oppressions globally are connected.”
Writer David Walker, who currently scripts comics for Dark Horse, used to publish the blaxplotation-themed movie magazine Bad Azz Mofo. “The first time I ever saw Jim Kelly, I'd never really seen a black man carry himself like that in a movie before," he says. "It really created a whole concept of heroism for me, which was profound. After seeing the movie, me and my cousin started wishing we could grow an afro and sideburns like his, and pretending that we knew karate.”
Indeed, I could remember the many fake karate fights in our neighborhood shortly after we exited the movie theater: throwing punches and kicks until inevitably somebody got hurt and the tears started flowing.
Over the next couple of years, Kelly made a handful of other films, including Three the Hard Way (1974); Black Belt Jones, which co-starred stunning Gloria Hendry as his equally deadly partner Sydney; and Black Samurai (1976). “Jim Kelly as Robert Sand, the Black Samurai, based on the paperback series created by Marc Olden, was a favorite,” says Los Angeles based crime writer Gary Phillips, co-editor of the recently released Black Pulp (Pro Se Press). “And how can you top him as a karate-chopping, kung-fu punching Native American in Take a Hard Ride, maybe the first spaghetti western-blaxploitation mash-up?”
Three the Hard Way—directed by Gordon Parks Jr., who was also the ghetto auteur behind Super Fly—is perhaps one of the worst movies ever made, but it does have a great Jim Kelly fight scene in the beginning where he kicks the butts of two cops trying to set him up. Seconds later, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson show-up to whisk him away on a crazy adventure.
“Jim Kelly was always the odd man out of the Black Action Film heroes to me,” says producer and former Invisible Woman film blogger Rocky Seker. “He obviously had looks, confidence, and incredible martial arts skills, but I always found him a bit boring, especially compared to Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. It was like he had an almost robotic-like personality, and the acting skills of a robot to match.”
Writer Gary Phillips says, “Maybe he didn't have much of a range as an actor, but like watching Bruce Lee, when he put his martial arts mojo on the bad guys, you were cheering in your seat.”
Exactly. Does it really matter that Jim Kelly wasn’t no Sidney Poitier? He was his own man, and he could’ve chopped Mr. Tibbs down to size easily.
As director/producer Reginald Hudlin told the LA Times in 2010 about Kelly’s influence. “You were glad to see yourself represented onscreen in general but specifically by him. Jim Kelly conveys a level of class that not every black exploitation-era hero had."
Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Essence. His essays have appeared in New York, Complex.com and The Village Voice. A prolific short story writer, his latest "Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie" appears in Black Pulp (Pro Se Press). Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and lives in