Karate, Kung Fu and Blaxploitation

In the 1970's, Jim Kelly starred in a number of martial arts blaxploitation films. This made him the baddest cat in the genre, the sport and around the world.

By Museum Of UnCut Funk

Museum Of UnCut Funk Collection

The 1970’s marked the beginning of the one-two combination of Blaxploitation and Kung Fu. It happened when taekwondo champion Jim Kelly appeared in Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon (1973). Kelly proved to be a popular character actor who would sign with Warner Brothers for a few more action films, thus creating the first crossing over of these two prolific genres. With his funky Afro, super cool attitude, and superb karate skills, Kelly was an integral part of the Black and martial arts cinematic explosion of this era and became one of the top martial arts film stars. While Jim Kelly conquered America, another Black martial arts titan, Ron Van Clief conquered Hong Kong. Known to many as “The Black Dragon”, Van Clief was chosen by producer Serafim Karalexis to appear in the films The Black Dragon (1974) and it's sequel, Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975).

Enter The Dragon US One Sheet Movie Poster (1973/1973) by Warner BrothersMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Enter The Dragon

August 19, 1973 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

The Black Dragon US One Sheet Movie Poster (1974/1974) by Madison World FilmMuseum Of UnCut Funk

The Black Dragon

November, 1974 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

James Milton Kelly aka Jim Kelly was born on May 5, 1946 in Paris, Kentucky. He spent most of his childhood years there, but later moved to San Diego where he developed an uncanny athletic ability in high school. He was a gifted athlete who was involved in sports such as track and field, football and basketball. He was voted most inspirational junior high athlete in the city of San Diego. He initially pursued a football career, but decided otherwise after leaving the University of Louisville as a freshman.

Shortly after leaving University of Louisville, Kelly moved to Lexington where he began his study of the martial arts under acclaimed instructor of Shorin-Ryu karate, Parker Sheldon. It was that decision that would cement his star status. In 1971, Kelly proved he was an excellent fighter, by capturing the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Championship. Realizing that he had a potential career in the martial arts, Kelly opened a karate studio. His recognition as a champion fighter gave him the opportunity to appear in the movie Melinda (1972). The part wasn’t big, but it led to other offers.

Six months later, Kelly was flown to Hong Kong to showcase some of his fighting techniques for Warner Brothers. Kelly had no idea he’d be getting a part in one of the biggest martial arts films in cinematic history. Kelly was asked to play ‘Williams’, one of the invited guests to the deadly Han’s Island in Enter The Dragon (1973) co-starring Bruce Lee. It was that role that brought him ‘star status’. Enter the Dragon’s huge popularity, largely due to Bruce Lee, showed that fans were eager to have a new kung fu hero.

Enter the DragonMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Enter the Dragon - Jim Kelly (Bullshit Mr Hand Man)Museum Of UnCut Funk

Kelly appeared in several martial arts influenced “blaxploitation” films. In 1974, Jim Kelly made his first appearance in a lead role in Black Belt Jones, which had an interesting fight finale in a soap filled car wash. In 1977, he starred in The Black Samurai, directed by genre veteran Al Adamson. He also starred in Three the Hard Way (1974), The Golden Needles (1974), Hot Potato (1976), The Tattoo Connection (1978) and Death Dimension (1978). Kelly retired after a string of low budget movies. His last appearance was in One Down, Two To Go (1982).

Black Belt Jones US One Sheet Movie Poster (1974/1974) by Warner BrothersMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Black Belt Jones

March 29, 1974 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

Black Belt Jones French Movie Poster (1974/1974) by Warner BrothersMuseum Of UnCut Funk

La Ceinture Noire

Black Belt Jones French Movie Poster

Black Belt Jones Japan One Sheet Movie Poster (1974/1974) by Warner BrothersMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Black Belt Jones

Japanese Movie Poster

Black Belt Jones TrailerMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Black Samurai US One Sheet Movie Poster (1977/1977) by BJLJ International Corp.Museum Of UnCut Funk

The Black Samurai

February, 1977 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

Three The Hard Way starring Jim Kelly, Fred Williamson and Jim Brown

Three The Hard Way US One Sheet Movie Poster (1974/1974) by Allied ArtistsMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Three The Hard Way

June 26, 1974 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

Hot Potato US One Sheet Movie Poster (1976/1976) by Warner BrothersMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Hot Potato

April, 1976 - US One Sheet Movie Poster

Death Dimnesion US One Sheet Movie Poster (1978/1978) by MovieTime FilmsMuseum Of UnCut Funk

Death Dimenson

July, 1978 -  US One Sheet Movie Poster

More athlete than actor, Kelly retired from the screen to pursue a successful career in professional tennis. A talented athlete, Kelly became a ranked player on the USTA senior circuit. He won ranked titles both in tennis and karate.

While Jim Kelly continued to be offered movie roles, he simply didn't "dig the scripts." He stated that he wouldn’t mind acting again, but wanted the roles to be respectable. He was very proud of the movies he did, and did not want to spoil that image. He made appearances and granted interviews. He studied Brazilian grappling and developed his own style of hybrid fighting.

In 2004, he starred with basketball star Lebron James in a Nike commercial that spoofed another Bruce Lee film, Game of Death. He also appeared at comic book conventions and Black memorabilia shows, where the Museum Of UnCut Funk had the privilege of meeting him.


Jim Kelly died at the age of 67 in 2013.


You can learn more about the Blaxploitation era at the Museum Of UnCut Funk.

LeBron James - Nike (Baneado en china)Museum Of UnCut Funk

Credits: Story

The Jim Kelly movie poster artifacts displayed in this story are from the Museum Of UnCut Funk Collection.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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