With his afro picked to spherical perfection and the arrogant way he carried himself, it seemed only natural that Jim Kelly would strut his way into not only my heart, but the hearts of audiences everywhere.
There was something about the ultra-cool way he walked. It was the baddest don't-mess-wit'-me-'cause-I-will-kick-yo'-ass strut I had seen in my entire pre-teen life. John Travolta would try it years later in Saturday Night Fever, but he could not come close. Decked out in those bad bell-bottoms, with his sideburns in perfect geometric alignment, Jim Kelly was the baddest-ass of the badass.
It almost seems as if the term “badass” was invented for Jim Kelly. Along with cats like Fred Williamson and Bruce Lee, Kelly redefined what an action hero was. When he was teamed with Lee, together they helped serve notice that the days of the John Wayne-ish white hero were gone. Kelly's fighting style was unorthodox, but effective. He was concerned only with kickin' ass. As the ill-fated Williams in the classic Enter the Dragon, it was Kelly who spoke the now infamous credo of ass-kickers everywhere. When Shih Kien's Mr. Han tells Williams it is defeat he must prepare for, it is not the character, but Jim Kelly himself who replies, "I don't waste my time. When it comes, I won't even notice. I'll be too busy lookin' good."
My obsession with Jim Kelly began back in the Summer of 1976, when my cousin Sean and I were both eight years old. Our Uncle Tommy was stuck taking care of us one Saturday, and in his typically irresponsible way, he took us to the movies. Grandma told him to take us to see some Disney flick, but Tommy had something else in mind. And after he spent our popcorn money on a bag of weed, which he proceeded to smoke on the way to the theater, he took Sean and me to see a double feature. The movies playing were Enter the Dragon and Hot Potato. Those two films would forever change my life.
After we walked out of that theater in South Norwalk, Connecticut, there was no doubt in my mind. I wanted to be Jim Kelly. Sure, I wanted to be Bruce Lee too, but I wasn't Chinese and that seemed like an obstacle that I wouldn't be overcoming any time soon. I promptly began growing my hair into an afro. "Man, you come right outta some comic book" became my catch phrase. And once Halloween rolled around, I slipped into yellow pajamas, pencilled in some sideburns, and I hit the trick-or-treat trail decked out as my main man.
It's difficult to explain my fascination with Jim Kelly; although over the years, I've met more than a few cats who have shared it. I think the first thing people need to understand is that Kelly came along at a time when black heroes on film were a new thing. Kids like me were starved for on-screen heroes that we could relate to. James Bond was cool and all, but he was about as far removed from the inner city as you could get. Kelly was part of the new wave of black action stars that came along in the seventies. These were guys that championed our causes. They protected us from the evil that was part of our everyday life. I remember the way he clobbered the mob in Black Belt Jones. The evil mafiosos and their Uncle Tom cohorts were trying to muscle in on the 'hood, and my main man Jim opened up a jumbo-sized can of kick-ass on 'em. He inspired an entire generation of black youth in Three the Hard Way, coming across like Huey P. Newton with a black belt, as he helped foil the genocidal plans of neo-Nazi scum. And I'll never forget Uncle Tommy, yelling at the screen as Jim Kelly beat the shit out of those cops in Enter the Dragon, "Spank 'em up, boy! Spank 'em up!"
Years later, my obsession with Kelly and many of the other stars of the blaxploitation era lead me on a quest to document their chapter in history. In 1995, I began putting together a documentary film on the black action films of the ‘70s, and on the top of my list of people to interview was Jim Kelly. It took nearly a year and tons of phone calls and letters, but I finally managed to track him down. Our first phone conversation had my heart racing, like the first time I asked some girl out on a date. Here I was, talking to Jim Kelly. And while the conversation was as low-key as those I'd already had with Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and Rudy Ray Moore, this one was different. This was me talking to the guy who inspired me to try every pseudo-karate kick I could muster on my grandparents' furniture. This was the guy who led me to spend years of allowance money on Afro Sheen. This was Black Belt Jones.
When I showed up at Jim's place with my camera crew on a hot June afternoon, I was scared shitless. Over the years, he had earned quite a reputation as a recluse and had grown into an enigma. All I knew about him was based on what I'd seen in the movies and articles I'd found in Fighting Stars and other martial arts publications. I was concerned with the reputation that proceeded him as an egomaniac. After all, this was a guy who in '75 laid claim to being the baddest dude in the world. In one interview, he said he could take on Ali, Frazier, and Foreman all in one night, with just a three-minute rest between each opponent!
It would seem that Kelly's extra-large afro was designed to carry his over-sized ego. The first thing I noticed when Jim came out to greet me and my crew was that his afro was gone. In a way, I was disappointed. But other than his hair being more closely cropped, he looked pretty much the same. He certainly didn't look 20 years older. His slim six-foot-three frame showed the signs of a man who could still kick ass. And as the interview got under way, the concerns of an ego out-of-control proved unwarranted. Kelly was accommodating and, at times, humble. He talked about his past accomplishments without the slightest hint of braggadocio. He was more concerned with discussing the importance of maintaining a positive mental attitude and his views on racism in the film industry.
Kelly's introduction to the film world came in 1972, one year after winning the International Middle Weight Karate Championships. He had been hired to teach karate to actor Calvin Lockhart in preparation for the film, Melinda. The film's producers were so taken with Kelly's natural charisma, he was given a supporting role in the film even though he had no acting experience. Cast in the role of Charly Atkins, the ass-kickin' buddy of the film's hero, Kelly made his acting debut. "I thought I was terrible," says Kelly of his first time on screen; "I really thought I was terrible. I thought I looked good on screen, I had the presence, but my acting skills were terrible."
Terrible may be an overstatement. Kelly ran no risk of winning an Academy Award for his performance in Melinda. Wearing a funky headband and even funkier shirt, Kelly shouted most of his lines. But the charisma was there. His trademark afro was already up to par. And when it came to servin' up the ass whoopings, a star was born.
His role in Melinda lead to Enter the Dragon, in which Kelly was a last-minute replacement for a now-unknown actor named Rockne Tarkington. Enter was meant to introduce Lee to an American audience that Hollywood feared was not ready for an Asian ass-kicker. "Bruce caught hell trying to get to the position he was at," says Kelly of his co-star. "Bruce should have been a superstar even before Enter the Dragon, but he wasn't because he was Chinese. The TV series Kung Fu was originally written for Bruce Lee. The guy wrote the screenplay for him. But the studio said no, 'because we can't have a Chinese guy as an action hero in America.' He faced an incredible amount of racism in this country."
When Bruce Lee died unexpectedly, Hollywood scrambled to find a replacement. Jim Kelly was the natural choice since American audiences already knew him. Add to that the growing popularity of blaxploitation films and superstardom seemed to be a given for Kelly. With only two films to his credit, a little acting experience, and the baddest afro in the industry, Kelly was quickly signed to a three-picture deal with an option on a television series.
Kelly's first starring film was Black Belt Jones. Though Kelly's acting hadn't improved much, it had Jim kickin' ass and that was all that mattered. Kelly was perfect as the secret agent out to avenge the death of his sensei. Black Belt Jones was just too damn cool for words. I still watch the battle royale at the car wash religiously. Many a times it has served to inspire me in the daily battles I must face. When Jim takes out a whole mess of goons with that funky windmill kick thing he does, I realize anything is possible. Whether he was beating the crap out of the bad guys or giving some good love to his woman, he barely broke a sweat and his afro always remained in perfect shape.
Kelly's career peaked after three films. A series of forgettable films followed Black Belt Jones, including the sequel, Hot Potato, and ultra-crappy films like Black Samurai and Kill Factor. Only Three the Hard Way seemed to offer any hope, as Kelly became part of a team of badasses. Teamed with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown in a testosterone-packed, ass-kickin' tour de farce, it seemed that maybe Kelly's career could find a new life as part of an ensemble. But even that did little to elevate Kelly's career. In fact, it only led to him playing a mute, half-breed Indian, trained in the art of Chinese foot fighting, in the western Take a Hard Ride.
As the blaxploitation genre quickly faded in the mid-seventies, so did the careers of many actors. "Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and myself were the last of the Black action heroes in Hollywood," Kelly told me. "And the reason is the fear of projecting a Black male in those positions. Let's just take for example, some white action heroes. Let's take this guy by the name of Chuck Norris. My personal opinion, I know Chuck. I remember when he was fighting in karate tournaments. He was a karate champion. But to me, he was never able to transmit that onto the screen. You take Chuck Norris and just change the color of his skin to black, and I guarantee he'd have trouble getting a job as an extra. But his skin is not black, it's white. And they pushed and pushed, and made him a star."
In 1981, Kelly kicked ass on film for the last time in the abysmal One Down, Two to Go. Since then, he's continued to train in the martial arts, but moved on to professional tennis. He's still offered roles in films like I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and Original Gangstas, but as Kelly explains, "I turn down three films a year because I refuse to do what they offer me. Even though they're starring roles, they're leads, but the scripts are so bad, or the image they want me to project as a black male, I won't do."
For me, and for all the countless fans across the world, Jim's reluctance to return to the world of film is depressing as hell. Why should we endure the likes of Don "the Dragon" Wilson or Jean-Claude Van Damme, when a brother like Jim is still capable of servin' up a good, healthy ass whoopin'?
I guess until Jim decides to come out of retirement, we will have to be content with the legacy of ass kickin' he has left us. We will have to be content knowing that the hero of our youth has set a standard of integrity for himself that we should all aspire to. And most importantly, we should know that even if Jim Kelly never returns to the screen, he himself feels content with where his life is. "I've experienced a lot of things. I've met a lot of people. I'm pretty happy with myself."
Maybe we can all learn a little bit from something Jim Kelly once said, not in a film, but when I talked with him: "People might take your money, your car, your girlfriend. They might do a lot of things. But never let anyone take your spirit. Once that happens, everything's over with."
It's been over two decades since Uncle Tommy took my cousin Sean and me to that life-altering double feature. Sean is a father now, and Tommy is still in that perpetually stoned existence. And for all three of us, the legacy of Jim Kelly continues to bind us, inspire us, and give us someone to cheer for. We all got together recently, and relived the thrills we shared so many years ago. The newest generation of our family, Sean's three year old daughter Nandi, was with us. "Who's that man?" she asked.
"That's Jim Kelly, sweetie," Sean told his daughter. "He's a badass."