This one hurts.
Jim Kelly, the groundbreaking martial artist turned actor has passed.
According to the obit, he died of cancer at his home in San Diego. He was 67.
Muhammad Ali and Jim Kelly
His leaves a lasting legacy. He can legitimately lay claim to being the first Black superhero on the big screen.
Before the Civil Rights Era and the 60’s Black people had no presence in comic books. Not only did we have an absence of meaningful characters – other than the soldier Gabe Jones in Sgt. (Nick) Fury’s Howling Commandos, and the ultra-offensive Whitewash Jones from the 40’s “integrated” ant-Nazi youth group The Young Allies (created by then comic book babies Stan Lee & Jack Kirby) led by Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes – we had no superheroes. None.
In 1966 Marvel changed that with the Black Panther in The Fantastic Four issue #52 …
… and then The Falcon in the pages of Captain America, issue #177.
But the new found integration of comic books wouldn’t translate to the silver screen for decades. A little more than three, to be exact.
Before Black folks had celluloid superheroes (uh, not that we actually have superheroes, plural, today: to date we’ve got Halle Berry’s Storm out of the X-Men franchise and Edi Gathegi as Darwin, the dude who died in X-Men: First Class. That’s it. 2013 and we’re still pitifully underrepresented, but that’s a rant for another time in this space) we had the antiheroes of the Blaxploitation era. Men and women who were either outlaws reluctantly doing the right thing or good guys and women walking on the wild side to right a wrong, often avenging the death of a loved one. That they did it in style and with a brashness and confidence that pretty much defined cool until Hip Hop took over as the dominant global cultural expression is another undeniable, indelible stamping of Blackness on Americana, and ultimately the world.
In the 70’s there were Blaxploitation flicks and stars galore, most notably Shaft with Richard Roundtree, Superfly starring Ron O’Neal, Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem featuring Fred Williamson, Robert Hooks as the original Mr. T in Trouble Man, and the dusky, dark, double-d’ed goddess Pam Grier of Friday Foster, Coffy, Sheba Baby and Foxy Brown fame.
But Jim Kelly was different. He was a Black Man kickin’ mainstream ass.
Jim Kelly was arguably the first Black superhero to appear on the silver screen. Unlike the Blaxploitation cats who were draped in the day’s finery, reflecting the fascination of the emerging street fashions and culture of the time, he wore a gi,
the traditional martial arts uniform. For any kid who grew up watching kung fu/karate flicks, to see him clad in the gear was a nod to inclusion. In roles he would sport everything from leather Nehru suits to the era’s short-shorts showing off his abs and ripped physique.
His game-changing role was in Enter The Dragon. As Williams, the Black American expatriate, he starred alongside the legendary Bruce Lee, thoroughly holding his own in every scene he was in. The clip below shows him working with Lee who personally choreographed Kelly’s fight scenes:
Bruce Lee choreographs Jim Kelly’s fight scenes in Enter The Dragon
When he first appears in ETD we see him first kickin’ some pigs behinds.
Jim Kelly as Williams in Enter The Dragon throws the swine in the trash
It was a theme that would repeat itself throughout his screen career.
Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly) vs. Racist Pigs from Three The Hard Way
After years of portraying unrealistic, unrealized, unimaginative roles depicting Black Men as subservient, simple emasculated and weak contrived characterizations, Kelly had oles where he actually got to whip some white ass. It was nothing short of empowering. We finally had a guy who could stand up to “The Man” and beat your behind with fists and feet.
In Enter The Dragon he more than held his own alongside Lee and John Saxon, and fittingly got his mack on choosing four women to, uh, unwind with …
Enter the Dragon , Williams chooses his women. “You, and you, and you …”
… and ultimately faces off with ETD’s villian, Mr Han where he utters the classic line, “Man you come right out of a comic book.”
Williams fights Mr. Han
After the 70’s and William’s career high point, including starring in Black Belt Jones,
Hot Potato, Black Samaurai
and Three The Hard Way with Williamson and Jim Brown, the roles dried up.
He made a few films in the 80’s, but after his movie star faded he went go on to have a career as a professional tennis player and a teacher of martial arts.
He had a cameo in the early aughts with a Nike commercial starring a silent, baby–faced LeBron James
LeBron James Chamber of Fear commercial with Jim Kelly
Kelly was a trailblazer. He paved the way for guys like Michael Jai White, Taimak and other martial arts based actors. Rest in power, Grand Master James Kelly.
Here’s a couple bonus clips showing Kelly fighting before he became famous and a tribute clip saluting him as the most unsung badass ever.
JIM KELLY Style
Most Unrecognized BADASS Jim Kelly