Last week, iconic actor and martial arts master Jim Kelly died at the age of 67. In the days since his death, there have been some very interesting and inspiring things written about him. My friends Michael Gonzales and Walidah Imarisha both wrote two of the more profound pieces about Grandmaster Kelly, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel I had more to add to the conversation. But then I stopped and really thought about the impact Jim Kelly had on my life, and how if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today. In a weird way, Jim Kelly was a father figure to me, whose work influenced me so much that it has become a part of my life.
My Jim Kelly story has two distinct beginnings. Seeing Kelly in Enter the Dragon for the first time is where the initial story starts. This particular narrative isn’t that different from that of so many others, who saw Enter the Dragon, primarily for Bruce Lee, and came away transformed because of Jim Kelly. I knew who most of the top tier black action heroes of the 1970s were at that point in my life, but somehow Jim Kelly was different from Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, or Fred Williamson. As an actor, his range was limited, but there was something about his on-screen charisma, his natural good looks, and his afro that just made him mesmerizing. Honestly, Jim Kelly was the first black actor that I wanted to be like—he was really the first black actor that made me truly proud to be black. And as over-the-top and outrageous as Enter the Dragon may have been, there is something about his character, Williams, that is different from all the other iconic black characters found in the so-called blaxploitation era.
I think it is really important to talk about the character of Williams for a moment, in part because it is the role Kelly is best remembered for, and because it is a stock character, built on clichés, that is at the same time an incredibly complex individual. Enter the Dragon is brilliant in that it introduces its three protagonists, and gives them each a brief flashback that establishes who they are and the world they come from. Williams comes from inner-city America—the ghetto—were righteous soul brothas train a karate dojos, preparing for the coming revolution that was promised in the 1960s, but withered and died during the 1970s. We see Williams harassed by some racist pig cops—the same ones Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale always warned us about—and rather than bowing down, Williams beats the hell out of them, and then drives off in their car. My man drives off in the cop car. To this day, that is one of the most cold-blooded things I’ve ever seen.
As the paper-thin plot to Enter the Dragon unfolds, we learn from a few brief lines of dialog that Williams is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and that he recognizes that the oppression of poor people is not limited to African Americans in the ghettos of the United States, and this politicizes him even more than his beating the hell out of the cops, because it shows that he sees the bigger picture. He has a voracious sexual appetite—a stereotype and cliché that helped endear him to fans in the 1970s. Sexual politics aside, many of us took comfort in knowing that when he wasn’t being a soldier in the war against police brutality, Williams was a stud that could handle multiple women at the same time. If the heroes that populate films like Enter the Dragon are projections of our fantasy, then Williams is perhaps the purest projection of the black male fantasy of the early 1970s.
The death of Williams—at the hands of the sinister Han—remains one of the most tragic and heartbreaking on-screen deaths in the history of cinema. I’ve seen the toughest street thugs tear up at the death of Williams, and the reason is because he is fantasy projection of what so many young black men wanted to be in the 1970s. He fought back against the cops like we wish we could have done. He got it on with beautiful women like we wish we could have done. He stood up for himself in face of danger like we wish we could have done. Compared to characters like Shaft or Priest in Super Fly, Williams was not that complex, which made it that much easier for audiences to project their fantasies on to him. When he died, it was as if we had been killed ourselves. And the only thing that made his death remotely bearable was that he died in a fight, as every true revolutionary should do. He did not go to his death passively, but rather he charged it head on with an I’d-rather-die-on-my-feet-than-live-on-my-knees fury that most black people fantasize about having, but seldom put to the test.
After Enter the Dragon, Kelly made several other films, all of varying degrees of quality. Black Belt Jones is pure fun. Death Dimension (a.k.a. Black Eliminator) is terrible. But good or bad, any film with Jim Kelly in it is worth watching, if for nothing else other than seeing the man in action.
The second beginning of my Jim Kelly story begins with me wanting a t-shirt with Kelly’s face on it. This was way before the Internet, and I remember scouring stores all over New York City, looking for a simple t-shirt with Jim Kelly’s image. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to make my own bootleg shirt, but first I had to find the best image possible. I went to a used magazine store, and rifled through all the martial arts magazines I could find, when by luck I stumbled across a magazine from 1981, with an interview with Kelly. Keep in mind that this was back in 1991 or 92, and all I was doing was looking for an image to Kelly so I could make a bootleg t-shirt. But then I read the interview with Kelly, where he said some very frank and honest things about his career, the black action films of the 1970s, and race in Hollywood. And that interview sparked something in me—I wanted to know more about Kelly, and more about the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. This interest would eventually lead me to making my blaxploitation documentary, which would lead to the creation of the original BadAzz MoFo—all of which happened because I wanted a Jim Kelly t-shirt.
The documentary that I ended up making was very different from what I originally intended. Honestly, my original idea had been to make a documentary primarily about Jim Kelly, his career, and what had happened to him after the demise of blaxploitation. The project changed many times over the years, but I always remained steadfast that I had to interview him. I finally got a chance to meet Grandmaster Kelly and interview him in 1996. At the time, I had no idea the path my life was on, or all the things that would happen as a result of my obsession with one person who only appeared in a handful of films. But if you are reading this post, either because you are a fan of Jim Kelly, or because you’re one of the people who actually follows my work, then I really want you all to know that so much of who I am is because of Jim Kelly. BadAzz MoFo is because of Jim Kelly. The comic books that I write are because of Jim Kelly. My novels are because of Jim Kelly. And for all of that, and even more, I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude and love.