by: Douglas Grant
Remembering Jim Kelly……
A year ago today we lost one of the most influential celebrities to have graced the tennis court, the dojo, and the silver screen: Jim Kelly. I regret then not having paid proper homage to him by giving him his just dues here at Across the Margin, however it is my hope that remembering him on the one year anniversary of his passing will help to keep his spirit alive. From a personal standpoint, Jim Kelly brought much joy to my teenage years, both for the awe he inspired with his martial arts prowess and the hilarity he created with his wit and catchy one-liners. However, beyond my selfish contentment was a man who inspired millions of people on a global scale, transcending the professional titles that served to identify his many talents. Jim Kelly was both a legend and an ambassador of good will.
Kelly grew up in Kentucky where his natural athleticism led him to shine on the football field, the basketball court, and the track. He attended the University of Louisville for a year, where he played football, but then left soon after to study Shōrin-ryū, a style of karate originating from Okinawa which was rooted in Shaolin. In the early 1970s he became one of the most celebrated competitors in the sport, winning the World Middleweight Karate Championship title in the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championship. Soon after, he opened his own dojo which was frequented by various Hollywood celebrities. A brief role playing a martial arts instructor in 1972’s Melinda would set him up for success in the immediate future.
Kelly’s big break came in 1973 when Hollywood producer Fred Weintrub paid a visit to Kelly’s Crenshaw Karate studio to see him in action. Immediately impressed with what he witnessed there, Wientrub signed Kelly on to co-star alongside John Saxon and Bruce Lee in what many would hail to be the greatest martial arts movie ever made: Enter the Dragon. The cultural significance of this film was no big secret. It was the first Chinese martial arts movie to have been produced by a major Hollywood Studio, Warner Bros., and it was the film that finally brought Bruce Lee international fame in the time just before his death. The success of the film on a global scale ushered in a whole new era of martial arts films, often dubbed the Kung-Fu genre. But Kelly, now a public figure virtually overnight, instantly had a career that had been launched into the stratosphere.
Kelly was now something more than a martial arts film star; he was a role model for black youth in the 70s. His noteworthy roles in the films that followed Enter the Dragon often straddled the line between the martial arts and blaxploitation genres, such as Mister Keyes in Three the Hard Way or Black Belt Jones in the film of the same name. Both the formidability of his physical aptitude and the self-assuredness of his no-nonsense attitude were particularly inspiring to urban youth who were trying to find their way in a post-Civil Rights world. “I broke down the color barrier,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star.” Moreover, the discipline that comes with the pursuit of martial arts under his tutelage was a healthy alternative to many of the self-destructive endeavors that were readily available to impoverished youth at that time.
Kelly’s film career waned by the early 1980s, due mostly to his reluctance to take on projects that his heart wasn’t in. Refusing to be discouraged, he set his sights on the tennis court, where he went on become a ranked player on the USTA senior men’s circuit. All the while, he was focused on the love of his family, friends, and community.
In later years we would see Kelly resurface here and there. He can be found in a comedic deleted scene with Eddie Griffin in 2002’s Undercover Brother. In 2004 he starred in a Nike commercial alongside Lebron James in a spoof on Bruce Lee’s posthumous final film, Game of Death. His last onscreen appearance would be a cameo in 2009’s Afro Ninja as the character Cleavon Washington.
Anthony Bourdain, a long time fan of Asian cinema and martial arts, was just one of many celebrities—like Marcus Allen or Quentin Tarantino—who’d been inspired by Kelly. Upon learning of the star’s passing, Bourdain wrote on Kelly’s Facebook page, “RIP Jim Kelly, hero of my grind house youth.”
Circling back to what Jim Kelly meant to me and my youth, I can honestly say that I feel how diminished the world seems without his presence. I’ve been a fan of the martial arts genre for as long as I can remember, and there’s no film that I watched more in high school than Enter the Dragon. There are no lines from a movie that I recited more with my friends than those delivered by Kelly in Black Belt Jones. His fast talk, cool confidence, and style made him a stand out, symbolic figure in his day. Just his meticulously manicured, mushroom-top afro alone demanded your respect. And anyone who can command the power of Hollywood to bring different cultures, races, and ethnicities together in mutual admiration has done the people a tremendous favor. Jim Kelly made the world a better place to live in the only way he knew how, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He’ll be deeply missed, but never far from the thoughts of those who admired him.