It was always my intention to have a section of the blog devoted to cinema badasses. Some will be known. Others less so. But all will have somehow left their indelible mark upon the annals of movie history.
Today then it is perhaps fitting to devote our inaugural Badass post to the late great Jim Kelly whom sadly passed away on Saturday, due to cancer.
Kelly, can be credited as being one of, if not the first African-American martial artist movie stars. His role as Williams in Enter the Dragon, while over-shadowed by the emerging Bruce Lee, was a turning point not only for the unknown karate champion, but for an entire race.
Plucked from obscurity when another actor left the production, Kelly was the real deal: Director Robert Clouse didn’t have to film any mid-shots from the waist up of Kelly busting heads. Not like he did with the Roger Moore-like stiff John Saxon – Kelly combined good looks, a killer afro and badass moves.
Set deep in the 1970’s the race issue was still omnipresent in America and it is not unexplored in Enter the Dragon. Kelly’s character, a cocky, inner-city ass-kicker whom comes into conflict with bigoted police, a grand lover and overall smooth dude added an authentic edge to the Lee-Kelly-Saxon badass-trifecta.
He also potentially has the best line in the entire film.
While Enter the Dragon can be considered the pinnacle of the careers of anyone whom was involved, Kelly’s time in Hollywood didn’t end there. At the height of the Blaxploitation era of American cinema, Kelly featured in a few notable gems, including Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai.
Sadly the decent roles began to dry up and in Kelly’s own words “that after a certain point, I didn’t get the type of projects that I wanted to do”.
While he is gone, he will not be forgotten. His influence has reached far and wide, including to future Badass Hall of Famer Michael Jai White. In 2009 White wrote and starred in the hugely entertaining Black Dynamite, with the titular character clearly being inspired by Kelly. White, not only a high level martial artist but a well regarded actor in his own right, had this to say about Kelly’s passing:
“My world stopped this morning when I learned of the passing of Jim Kelly. He was a pioneer, our first black representation of what a black martial artist is to this world. His look, swagger, martial arts prowess has been an inspiration myself as well as countless others. In Black Dynamite I copied his monochromatic fashion since, his afro, as well has his patented kiai (yell) SUUUEEYY! I am inspired to continue honoring him as I forge forward in this industry.
I’ve met the man upon occasion and have empathized with his wounds that were afflicted by Hollywood. We first met at Good Earth Restaurant in “97” when I went over to his table an introduced myself as Mike.
He didn’t know who I was but he shared his views on the industry and was deeply troubled with how blacks were being treated in Hollywood. In the 70’s Black Alpha Males were embraced in movies as logical leads and representations of who we were and currently our media blueprint was that of a buffoonish nature.
We exchanged information and I’d contact him from time to time. I was Mike, the guy from Good Earth and I worried he might feel betrayed when he learned of how much more our paths were similar and that I was, in many ways, seen as “The New Him.”
I tried to get him to do cameos in films but the “Hollywounds” were too deep. For now I will train just a little bit harder and focus a little deeper. I, as well as my generation was inspired by Jim Kelly and I have to accept that I may inspire the next. I am saddened that this hero was defeated, by himself or the system and I resolve not to do the same. I accept this baton on behalf of you Master Kelly and Mike from Good Earth’s gonna fight on with the swagger and pride he borrows from you!”
So here’s to you Master Kelly. Rest in Peace brother.