Flashback – Interview: Jim Kelly on Life After “Black Belt Jones”

During a rare personal appearance in Austin in 2003 to the Alamo Drafthouse, the legendary African-American martial artist-turned-movie star spoke about the days when he wanted to be Superman...
Black Belt Jones star Jim Kelly in a scene from Hot Potato

Originally published in The Daily Texan on September 24, 2003.

“When I saw Superman on screen, I thought I could fly. I thought if I was on top of a building and tied a sheet around me, and I wouldn’t get way up, but I went up on my grandmother’s chicken house and thought I could jump off and fly like Superman because I saw it on TV,” said Jim Kelly, the martial arts star of the 1970s (not to be confused with the Buffalo Bills quarterback of the same name).

If you’ve ever seen “Black Belt Jones,” one of the Blaxploitation era’s finest films, you would actually believe Kelly could fly. In baby blue bellbottoms that resembled parachutes more than pants and an Afro that provided more cushioning than any helmet could, Kelly often leapt from any ledge he could find to deliver a drop kick to the Man. With the kind of reverent slow motion usually afforded only to flying doves and passionate kisses on film, the camera loved Jim Kelly and for a time that was all too brief, Kelly loved the camera back.

During the 1970s, he starred in 10 films, two of which will be featured at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakecreek this Sunday on a double bill of Kelly’s most famous films — “Black Belt Jones” and “Enter the Dragon,” in which Kelly faces off against Bruce Lee. Incidentally, it was Lee’s sudden and unexpected death that created the void in the martial arts community that allowed Kelly to rise to stardom in Hollywood. After the success of “Enter the Dragon” and the tragedy that befell Lee, Warner Brothers, eager to capitalize on the potential of the martial arts genre, turned their attention to Kelly.

“I considered myself a personality,” said Kelly. “I was a martial arts champion, and I used that to get into the movie business. I’m an athlete, and I went to an acting school with Lee Strasberg and just learned the basics of acting, and I did that after about my third film.”

Naturally, he wasn’t about to join the Royal Shakespeare Company after his work with Strasberg, and he didn’t even get the best lines in films like “Black Belt Jones,” where co-star Gloria Hendry spoke the immortal line, “My cookie could kill you.” But he always had one hell of a roundabout kick. Blessed with a lanky, imposing frame and charisma you can’t teach, Kelly was cursed by the limitations of the two genres he ended up becoming a poster child for — martial arts and Blaxploitation.

“The scripts I was getting were bad scripts, and the character they wanted me to project — they weren’t the type of characters I wanted to project. I wanted to do action films, but in Hollywood, they usually have a steel-type black guy they want to project, and I wasn’t willing to do those things.”

So he left. And the legend grew. Unlike his contemporaries Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, who wore out their welcome in the early 1980s, Kelly stayed away from the silver screen for the most part, though it should be mentioned he reteamed with those “Three the Hard Way” stars once more for the sequel “One Down, Two to Go” as a last hurrah.

Instead, he played tennis. And considering his natural athleticism, it should come as no surprise that Kelly turned professional in California and ranked as high as No. 2 in the senior men’s doubles ranking and top 10 in the senior men’s singles. It’s still a sport he loves, so much so that he owns his own tennis club and occasionally teaches classes.

“It’s not the type of money I could make in the movie business,” said Kelly. “I’m offered three to four films a year, and that’s millions of dollars, but like I said before, I just won’t do that.”

He also wouldn’t take part in the surge of nostalgia the Blaxploitation genre has received in recent years. While films like “Undercover Brother” and “Jackie Brown” glorified the era, Kelly didn’t accept any of the man invitations he had to meet the new generation of fans that had rediscovered his work. His personal appearance in Austin will be the first he’s ever done, and this was without even knowing about the thunderous applause that greeted “Black Belt Jones” when it was shown at the Drafthouse as part of the 2nd Quentin Tarantino Film Festival. As someone who maintains he got into films because he wanted to be a role model, Kelly is amenable to being considered one again.

“It’s good, because I think it’s very much needed,” Kelly said. “But right now I’m very particular about what I do, so if I never did another film, it’s okay with me.”

Maybe his fans don’t share the same resolve, but in a genre not known for subtlety, Jim Kelly left with grace.

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