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"I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly 
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Post "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
Sadly, we lost one of our more underappreciated actors this week: Jim Kelly, who just succumbed to a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. Kelly was a figurehead of the '70s blaxploitation genre. Most people will recognize him as he appears in this picture.

Image

(Kelly is the one who isn't Bruce Lee.)

I figure now is a good time to take a look at some of Kelly's movies and do a retrospective. I've selected five titles that seem to give a well-rounded picture of his catalog.

I'll be starting with 1977's Black Samurai, in which Kelly plays a special agent on a mission to rescue a kidnapping victim. From there, 1975's Take a Hard Ride, a western that also stars Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef. Then, 1974's Three The Hard Way, whose poisoned water supply storyline was famously parodied in Black Dynamite. After that, 1974's Black Belt Jones, which is that old chestnut of a plot where the martial arts teacher is killed and the student vows revenge. And, finally, Kelly's breakout film, Enter The Dragon.

I don't have any illusions about the quality of these movies. The majority of them will probably be a slog. But I'm expecting that Kelly's signature blend of physical action and impish attitude will be a reliable highlight of each.

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Mon Jul 01, 2013 3:01 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
1. Black Samurai

Not a great start. Kelly was apparently given creative control over his own action sequences, and it shows--both in the quality of those scenes and in the utter lack of quality everywhere else. This is a bad b-movie even by blaxploitation standards, verging on Manos: The Hands of Fate's level of technical failure at some points. The only reason I can imagine wanting to watch it is the reason I did watch it. In that one aspect, it did not disappoint.

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Tue Jul 02, 2013 6:38 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
Kelly's wife released this statement:

Quote:
I am Jim’s lifetime partner of 33 years and wife. Jim was a great guy whom I loved and he loved his fans. Jim was proud to have helped popularize martial arts and see the sport grow over the years. He was a loving husband, avid tennis player and actor. Jim lost his battle with cancer and I would like to personally thank you all for your continued prayers and support. Please take a few minutes to celebrate and honor the life of someone who has battled cancer. You may make a donation to the American Cancer Society on Jim’s behalf by going to http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR/Event ... id=1447080 . Please help educate and fund cancer research.

Jim was a true legend who lived life with honor, truth, and integrity. Prior to his death he enjoyed interacting with his fans though Facebook, Twitter and his Official website. Jim is going to be deeply missed. He is survived by his daughter Sabrena Kelly-Lewis and grandson.

Sincerely
Marcia Bentley-Kelly

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Tue Jul 02, 2013 8:57 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
Michael Jai White on Jim Kelly:

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“My world stopped this morning when I learned of the passing of Jim Kelly. 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.

I've met the man upon occasion and have empathized with his wounds that were afflicted by Hollywood. We first met at Good Earth Restaurant in "97" when I went over to his table an introduced myself as Mike.

He didn't know who I was but he shared his views on the industry and was deeply troubled with how blacks were being treated in Hollywood. In the 70's Black Alpha Males were embraced in movies as logical leads and representations of who we were and currently our media blueprint was that of a buffoonish nature.

We exchanged information and I'd contact him from time to time. I was Mike, the guy from Good Earth and I worried he might feel betrayed when he learned of how much more our paths were similar and that I was, in many ways, seen as "The New Him."

I tried to get him to do cameos in films but the "Hollywounds" were too deep. For now I will train just a little bit harder and focus a little deeper. I, as well as my generation was inspired by Jim Kelly and I have to accept that I may inspire the next. I am saddened that this hero was defeated, by himself or the system and I resolve not to do the same. I accept this baton on behalf of you Master Kelly and Mike from Good Earth's gonna fight on with the swagger and pride he borrows from you!”
http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact ... -jim-kelly

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Tue Jul 02, 2013 12:43 pm
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
A piece from the "Balder and Dash" section of Ebert.com. Excerpt:

"He uttered my favorite line--right before he got killed by the master villain," says novelist Chris Chambers. "When he says, 'Man, you're straight outta a comic book,' that was classic."

My friend Scott LaRoc, a Brooklyn native and movie aficionado who saw Enter the Dragon at the Metropolitan Theater opening weekend, said: "For young Black men growing-up in the seventies, Jim Kelly became somebody to look up to. Of course, we already had Richard Roundtree, Max Julian and Ron O’Neal, but Jim Kelly had a different kind of style and cool."

Novelist Robert Fleming agrees. "It helped his cool rating with his appearance with Lee, because everybody knew Lee was the best of the best."

Artist Fab 5 Freddy, whose paintings are currently is a show called "Kung-Fu Wildstyle" at the Furman Gallery, says, "Jim Kelly was that soul bro with the Afro Sheen fro that solidified the hood's deep infatuation with kung fu." He says that the karate master's 1974 film Black Belt Jones "...solidified the close connection between two of cinemas most original and impactful genres."

Portland State University professor and pop culture geek Walidah Imarisha says, "I feel like I actually learned the nucleus for many of my political ideologies from Jim Kelly movies. Seeing the solidarity and connection between Kelly and Bruce Lee, the commonality of people of color's experiences was encapsulated so well in the line by Kelly: 'Ghettos are the same all over the world. They stink.' Seeing that, our oppressions globally are connected."

Writer David Walker, who currently scripts comics for Dark Horse, used to publish the blaxplotation-themed movie magazine Bad Azz Mofo. "The first time I ever saw Jim Kelly, I'd never really seen a black man carry himself like that in a movie before," he says. "It really created a whole concept of heroism for me, which was profound. After seeing the movie, me and my cousin started wishing we could grow an afro and sideburns like his, and pretending that we knew karate."

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Wed Jul 03, 2013 12:39 pm
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
I wish I could comment meaningfully, but my exposure to Blaxploitation is non-existent.

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Thu Jul 04, 2013 8:04 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
At the very least, you've probably seen Enter The Dragon--not blaxploitation itself, but a seminal film for the genre anyway due to the impact that Kelly's character had. His marriage of martial arts to his depiction of a stylish, streetwise young black man was very influential to the subject matter and imagery of blaxploitation. It's a good film to dip your toes in instead of plunging headfirst.

Of course, blaxploitation is nothing more than a cute name for the trend of low-budget cinema featuring assertive black characters in leading roles. It famously withered on the vine toward the end of the 1970s, and Kelly's acting career withered along with it. He was offered minor roles after that, but he usually declined them. He never played a lead role again.

It's a bummer, but I can understand why. It's not hard to see why he would become disillusioned with the way black filmmakers tenaciously carved a place for themselves in cinema, only to lose it in a matter of years.

And if you haven't seen Enter The Dragon... see it! It's terrific.

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Thu Jul 04, 2013 8:51 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
Ken wrote:
At the very least, you've probably seen Enter The Dragon--not blaxploitation itself, but a seminal film for the genre anyway due to the impact that Kelly's character had. His marriage of martial arts to his depiction of a stylish, streetwise young black man was very influential to the subject matter and imagery of blaxploitation. It's a good film to dip your toes in instead of plunging headfirst.

Of course, blaxploitation is nothing more than a cute name for the trend of low-budget cinema featuring assertive black characters in leading roles. It famously withered on the vine toward the end of the 1970s, and Kelly's acting career withered along with it. He was offered minor roles after that, but he usually declined them. He never played a lead role again.

It's a bummer, but I can understand why. It's not hard to see why he would become disillusioned with the way black filmmakers tenaciously carved a place for themselves in cinema, only to lose it in a matter of years.

And if you haven't seen Enter The Dragon... see it! It's terrific.



I haven't seen Enter the Dragon - that's how usless I am!

It's on the list though!

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Thu Jul 04, 2013 11:40 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
When I was watching Enter the Dragon the first thought I had was that Jim Kelly and John Saxon had absolutely no business in that setting. By the time all was over that thought was gone and Kelly was the coolest of them all. Don't know if that's because I grew up around kids trying to emulate him or if that's an enduring quality - I haven't seen the movie in over 30 years and haven't seen any of his other work. His character still stands out to me more than Bruce Lee's.


Fri Jul 05, 2013 9:04 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
2. Take A Hard Ride

A competent but fairly standard-order western in which a gang of good guys are transporting a sack of money and a gang of bad guys naturally picks up the scent. What makes this movie stand out is the stellar trio of black actors playing the heroes: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly. Rounding out the notable names is Lee Van Cleef as the villainous ringleader.

It is Kelly who gets the least prominent of these roles, that of an Indian-raised mute black man who knows martial arts. (If there's ever been a more unlikely combination of character traits in a western, I have yet to see it, but the movie doesn't dwell on it.) Kelly's role in the drama isn't prominent, but he provides by far the most heat when the action picks up. His character goes from a silent tagalong to a whirlwind of feet. The bad guys and the western genre as a whole seem utterly unprepared for him.

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Fri Jul 12, 2013 12:27 pm
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
3. Three the Hard Way

Another Brown/Williamson/Kelly team-up. This time, they're three buddies who discover a white supremacist plot to strike against the black populations of three different cities. As with so many movies, none of the authorities seem to know or care, leaving it up to the trio of heroes to take the problem into their own hands. Solving the mystery of the evil organization's plans gets some lip-service, but it's mainly a pretext for big action: car chases, gunfights, and (on the part of Kelly's notably anti-gun character) spectacular martial arts takedowns.

Nobody's gunning for any Oscars here. The story, acting, and production values are generally in line with other action pictures of the time. But the heroes are all appealing, and some of the setpiece sequences have standout personalities of their own--such as a moment when Williamson lures some mooks into a vulnerable position and picks them off one by one.

I've heard Jim Brown referred to as the black Burt Reynolds. If so, then Kelly, with his serious demeanor, lean build, shirtless/black pants combo, and penchant for martial arts melee weaponry, must be the black Bruce Lee.

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Wed Jul 17, 2013 12:55 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
4. Black Belt Jones

Here's an old martial arts movie chestnut: the local sensei has been killed by gangsters and one of his students is out for vengeance. What sets Black Belt Jones apart is not just the recontextualization--from the Chinese period piece of Fist Of Fury to the urban center of then-present day America--but also a refocusing of the roles. For example, the teacher is a bawdy Scatman Crothers and the thugs are only interested in the piece of real estate that his school sits upon.

This is Kelly's movie, front and center, but his supporting cast features a wonderful revelation that I would not spoil, except to say that "Sydney" is one to watch out for. As with other martial arts movies (which this is, despite looking like blaxploitation on the outside), the plot elements of this one are mere guideposts that hold the action sequences together. And, as with other martial arts movies, this one tends to get bogged down a bit when it gets too caught up in the intrigue. Most of the villains stand around like bowling pins waiting to be knocked down.

But when the action takes off, this movie's creativity and energy run high enough to put it in the higher tiers of the genre. Black Belt Jones is more than a curiosity. It is the strongest argument for Jim Kelly's talent as a leading man.

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Sun Jul 28, 2013 5:37 am
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Post Re: "I'll be too busy looking good." AKA Ken watches Jim Kelly
It was originally my intention to finish out July with Enter The Dragon, but I simply dragged my feet too much and ran out of time. No biggie; I've seen it several times already, so I'm comfortable with contextualizing my existing opinion of it within what I've since learned about Kelly's body of work.

So, without further ado:

Conclusion

While perhaps not an accomplished dramatic actor, Jim Kelly's screen presence is undeniable. His formidable action chops and outsized personality should have made him one of the biggest old-school action stars in cinema history--perhaps even America's answer to Kelly's most famous contemporary, Bruce Lee.

Alas, the wave Kelly rode broke quickly and rolled back without giving him a chance to really find his high water mark. (One wonders if Lee himself would have been destined for a similar fate had he not been frozen in history at his peak.) It is because of that thin line between talent and circumstance that few people have heard of Kelly or know what he was capable of.

Best title in this series: Black Belt Jones. That's the true Jim Kelly star vehicle, and should anyone ever find themselves inspired to look into his work, it's a good one to remember him by.

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Thu Aug 01, 2013 2:19 am
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