A Tribute to Jim Kelly (1946-2013)
Following the recent passing of Lau Kar Leung, another loss was felt in the Martial Arts movie world as iconic star Jim Kelly, who rose to prominence in the 1970s, also passed away this week.
Well loved and recognised as the first African American Martial Arts star and best remembered as Williams in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, his work truly stood the test of time, broke cultural and social barriers and served as an inspiration to many. When he started out I doubt even he knew the impact his career would bring and ultimately this would be his legacy.
Born and raised in Kentucky, the young Jim Kelly naturally excelled in sports and enjoyed playing football and basketball. This continued as he pursued football at University before leaving when a new love for Martial Arts took over. He began studying Shorin-ryu karate and quickly progressed through the ranks, winning competitions and making a name for himself on the local and national circuit. Most notably in 1971 he earned four championships including the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Having established his name he eventually opened his own dojo and wasn't short of students. This included celebrities and actors brushing up on their skills for roles and this path ultimately led him into a new career in the movies.
His first foray into acting came in Melinda (1972), earning a supporting role after he trained lead actor Calvin Lockhart for the film. But his big break arrived when he was offered a co-starring role in Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's crossover hit into the American market.
Reportedly taking place after another actor dropped out, producer Fred Weintraub heard about Jim Kelly's dojo in Los Angeles and after visiting him, was immediately impressed. History was in the making. Playing Williams, another character lured into evil Han's top secret Martial Arts tournament, Jim Kelly oozed swagger, style and attitude playing an inner-city karate instructor who was harassed by cops and played by the system, but wouldn't back down. He was an inspiration for audiences everywhere, particularly those who faced injustice and prejudice in their own lives. Much like Bruce in Fist of Fury, Jim Kelly was an identifiable onscreen hero fighting back.
As we know, the film was a huge hit and despite being a star vehicle for Bruce in the west, another star had also been born. For Jim Kelly, this created a platform for leading roles in a string of high-kicking Blaxploitation movies, including Black Belt Jones (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), Hot Potato (1976), Black Samurai (1976) and others. Much of this was bolstered by an impressive three-film contract with Warner Brothers which helped cement his place as a highly regarded new star on the scene. He even choreographed the action on a few of his movies! Today, these movies remain cult favourites among fans. Throughout the 1980s and 90s he worked less onscreen as he slowly backed away from the film industry. His last performance can be seen in the comedy spoof, Afro Ninja (2009), in which he played the lead. Very sadly on 29 June 2013 he died of cancer in his California home at the age of 67.
Throughout his life he maintained his passion for Martial Arts and even tennis, which he also coached professionally. He'd often be interviewed in Martial Arts movie documentaries and attended major expos and events where he always drew fans.
Michael Jai White wrote a particularly poignant tribute which included the words: "He was a pioneer, our first black representation of what a black Martial Artist is to this world. His look, swagger, Martial Arts prowess has been an inspiration myself as well as countless others. In Black Dynamite I copied his monochromatic fashion since, his afro, as well has his patented kiai (yell) SUUUEEYY! I am inspired to continue honoring him as I forge forward in this industry."
And through the work of Michael Jai White and so many others it's clear the torch has been passed sucessfully. Through the power of cinema, movies continue inspiring countless generations. From time to time we're lucky enough to witness a true icon, a game changer, and see the positive energy and force for change their work can bring. Surely this is the ultimate accomplishment and Jim Kelly more than acheived it.
Check out this great tribute video.