I bought a used VHS copy of Black Belt Jones at a Hollywood Video in Salt Lake City, back when VHS and Hollywood Videos were still things. Not only was Black Belt Jones one of the first blaxploitation films I ever saw, but it was—and still is—one of my favorite kung fu flicks. I've got it on DVD now—on the same "Urban Action Collection" set that contains Black Samson, Hot Potato, and Three the Hard Way—but I still have that tape somewhere, too, even though I threw away my VCR years ago. About 90 percent of Black Belt Jones' enduring charm is thanks to its star, Jim Kelly, whose most famous role was in Enter the Dragon, but who starred in a slew of other movies, the most famous probably being Three the Hard Way and the impressively insane Black Samurai. He never became mainstream famous, but the people who liked Jim Kelly really liked Jim Kelly.
Kelly died over the weekend. He was 67. While my memories of the guy are pretty distanced—about what you'd expect from somebody who always really liked his movies, but was still just some skinny dumb white kid who discovered Kelly via some crappy video store—he meant a lot more to a lot of other people. Like Portland film writer David Walker, who interviewed Kelly and wrote about it for Giant Robot:
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!" (Via.)
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!