I was very disheartened to find out that one of my childhood heroes, martial arts bad brother Jim Kelly, recently passed away. He was 67.
Kelly died at his home in San Diego, according to his ex-wife Marilyn Dishman, who shared the news on Facebook. He had been battling cancer.
"James Milton Kelly, better known as Jim Kelly, the karate expert, actor, my first husband and Sabrena Kelly-Lewis's biological father[,] died," she wrote.
To put the impact Kelly had on me, and so many other young boys, in perspective, we have to go back in time, specifically to Saturday mornings.
I grew up in the '70s around the height of popularity of blaxploitation films, a portmanteau of "black" and "exploitation" coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People head and an ex-film publicist. Although at the time there were black images on the big screen, the black community had very little control over those images, thus the term "blaxploitation" was created.
Saturday mornings were a special time, back in the day. We are talking before Cartoon Network, Disney or Boomerang. The only place and time you could enjoy cartoons was Saturday mornings.
My ritual would start early with a bowl of Captain Crunch and episodes of Space Ghost or the Herculoids. I would be glued to the TV until the Saturday-morning cartoon lineup would come to an end, followed by Soul Train. If you were a die-hard Saturday TV fan like me, you would have eventually gotten to enjoy a martial arts film fraught with superhero martial arts characters and requisite, and yes, comical, sync issues in dialogue (where the audio and visual didn't match, an unfortunate but hilarious by-product of old martial arts films dubbed with English dialogue).
I loved martial arts films. You see, for a young, nerdy black boy who had to perpetually negotiate a treacherous inner-city neighborhood with bullies, the fantasy of learning some "tiger-style" kung-fu move was just too good to pass up. I would practice my moves incessantly — usually on my poor, unsuspecting sisters. But it was not until I saw Jim Kelly that I could legitimately imagine myself as a martial arts master. Prior to Kelly, all of the martial arts dudes I remember were Asian brothers — or even white guys — but Kelly boldly stepped onto the big screen with an afro, sideburns, muscles, funny one-liners and enough close-ups of him mean-mugging to fill a film festival.
In real life, Kelly was a martial arts instructor in Los Angeles who was recruited for a few film roles. His breakout part came from teaming up with martial arts legend Bruce Lee in the film Enter the Dragon.
"It was one of the best experiences in my life," Kelly told Salon.com about filming Dragon. "Bruce was just incredible, absolutely fantastic. I learned so much from working with him. I probably enjoyed working with Bruce more than anyone else I'd ever worked with in movies because we were both martial artists. And he was a great, great martial artist. It was very good."
Although Kelly was usually killed off fairly quickly — the typical fate of black characters in action and horror films — this tall, lean, afro-wearing, kung-fu fighting machine left a lasting impression on viewers. Fans wanted more.
Kelly was a hero to many viewers, but to a young black boy he was a superhero. As much as I enjoyed cartoons, comics and superheroes, there were few that looked like me — except for maybe the Black Panther, and all he could do was run and jump high, which most of the dudes in my neighborhood could accomplish on the basketball court, minus the cat suit.
Kelly had about a dozen films during the 1970s, including Three the Hard Way, Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai. His career, like those of so many other actors from the blaxploitation era, quickly dwindled to nothing.
Kelly talked about his career and the frustration that many black actors felt post blaxploitation-era films, in an interview with the L.A. Times.
"I never left the movie business. It's just that after a certain point, I didn't get the type of projects that I wanted to do. I still get at least three scripts per year, but most of them don't put forth a positive image. If it happens, it happens, but if not, I'm happy with what I've accomplished."
One of Kelly's most memorable lines from Enter the Dragon comes when the villain challenges him to "prepare to be defeated." What Kelly says epitomizes his demeanor and humble take on creating his beloved superhero/martial arts/soul-brother character.
"When it comes, I won't even notice. I'll be too busy looking good."