While we have made it a point to stay away from Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, and Ron O’Neal in oru 28 For 28 project, because even people who know nothing about blaxploitation typically have some idea who they are, and what they’ve done. We’ve gone back and forth on whether we should include Jim Kelly in 28 for 28, or put him into the list of blaxploitation elite, and obviously, we ultimately decided to go ahead and include him, and here’s why.
Jim Kelly died last year, and while there was a great deal of discussion about it among the hardcore film fans, it didn’t seem to have the impact in pop culture news that it should have made. While he was a superstar of blaxploitation films, the vast majority of people just know him as the black guy from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
Jim kelly deserves much more respect than that.
Kelly was a top-notch athlete, just like his on-screen co-stars in several films, Fred Williamson and Jim Brown. While he played a little football in college, his primary claim to fame was being a real-deal, karate champion. He won several titles in the sport very early in the 1970s before finding his way into films by teaching Calvin Lockhart a few moves for the movie Melinda.
A year later, he was side by side with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and his career took off from there. He would go on to become Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai, as well as teaming up with Williamson and Brown for several films.
He eventually bowed out of acting and focused on playing tennis, a sport which he played frequently when he wasn’t kicking ass on the big screen in the 1970s.
He was a dual genre threat at the height of his career. Blaxploitation fans loved him for his roles like Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, and kung fu fans loved him for his karate work in Enter the Dragon, “Black Belt Jones 2” and Hot Potato. I put Black Belt Jones 2 in quotes, because it was essentially a kung fu movie he made in Hong Kong years before it was ever released in the United States under the BBJ2 title in an effort to cash in on his box office momentum.
Why We Love and Respect Him: While he might have been an actor, he was one of the few action stars who really knew how to do the things he appeared to do in the movies. This guy was a real badass, not just a movie-magic one.
Best Known For: being the black guy in Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee.
Jim Kelly awesome Three the Hard Way Fight
Blaxploitation Role Call:
Melinda (1972) as Charles Atkins: Atkins is a martial arts instructor who teaches radio DJ Frankie Parker, played by Calvin Lockhart, who was really trained by Jim Kelly for the role. Parker is mixed up in a frame-job by the local mob.
Black Belt Jones (1974) as Black Belt Jones: Jones is hired by Sydney to avenge the death of her father, whose life was cut short by the mafia who desperately wants to get their hands on Papa Byrd’s dojo. Black Belt Jones comes to the rescue.
Three the Hard Way (1974) as Mister Keyes: Keyes is the martial arts master out of a trio of heroes, the others being a record producer and entrepreneur, who stumble onto a plot by white supremacists to poison the water supply to kill black people. Keyes has one of the best fight scenes in the film, which takes place in the middle of the street.
Take a Hard Ride (1975) as Kashtok: Kashtok is a mute scout who assists Tyree (Fred Williamson) and Pike (Jim Brown) in transporting a large sum of cash through the old west. Along the way they have to deal with western movie badass Lee Van Cleef. Kashtok is a highly skilled martial artist.
One Down, Two to Go (1976) as Chuck: Chuck believes a high-stakes karate tournament is rigged, and when he investigates the matter he’s put in his place by the folks who did the rigging. He calls in some old friends to help him get back at the hucksters who rigged the tournament and took the prize money which was rightfully his.
Black Samurai (1977) as Robert Sand: Sand is called on to stop an evil conglomerate from creating a super-weapon, but that isn’t their only intention. The group is up to their neck in voodoo and drugs, all of which create problems for Sand as he tries to save his girl and stop the creation of the weapon.
Jim kelly talks about Bruce Lee and his filmmaking experiences in an interview from WonderCon
“When I saw Superman on screen, I thought I could fly. I thought if I was on top of a building and tied a sheet around me, and I wouldn’t get way up, but I went up on my grandmother’s chicken house and thought I could jump off and fly like Superman because I saw it on TV,” said Jim Kelly, the martial arts star of the 1970s