Jim Kelly, iconic images and Black heroes

By Richard B. Muhammad -Editor- | Last updated: Jul 2, 2013 - 10:13:13 AM

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When I heard about the passing of Jim Kelly it just didn’t seem right to limit news of his passing to a wire story and recounting how he played alongside fellow martial arts legend Bruce Lee in “Enter The Dragon.”

According to the Associated Press, the man I revered growing up as “Black Belt Jones” was 67-years-old at the time of his passing and the cause of death was cancer.

“Sporting an Afro hairstyle and sideburns, Kelly made a splash with his one-liners and fight scenes in the 1973 martial arts classic. His later films included ‘Three the Hard Way,’ ‘Black Belt Jones’ and ‘Black Samurai,’ ” the Associated Press noted.

This 1973 photo released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Jim Kelly as Williams in a scene from “Enter the Dragon.” Kelly, who played a glib American martial artist in “Enter the Dragon” with Bruce Lee, died, June 29 of cancer at his home in San Diego. He was 67. Sporting an Afro hairstyle and sideburns, Kelly made a splash with his one-liners and fight scenes in the 1973 martial arts classic. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
“During a 2010 interview with, Kelly said he started studying martial arts in 1964 in Kentucky and later moved to California where he earned a black belt in karate. He said he set his sights on becoming an actor after winning karate tournaments. He also played college football,” AP noted.

But the “Black Dragon” was more than just an actor: He was a huge screen hero for millions of Black boys like me. He was fearless, unconquerable, handsome, always got the girl and was always on the right side. The right side? Yes. The right side, as in, somehow he was always standing as a champion for Black people and always associated with either a group of revolutionaries, gang members of like-minded brothers in the ‘hood. You didn’t need someone else to come to the rescue when you had Black Belt Jones and crew on deck. There was an idealism in pursuit of what was right and there was always a “fine sister” in distress, who usually could kick butt in her own right. They were a team and we had a team that looked like us and a team that was trying to right wrongs done to us.

The images of Jim Kelly on-screen and the images of members of the Black Panther Party and Minister Malcolm X and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam in real life shaped my view of the world and formed my image of Black men and thoughts about Black people. We were beautiful, we were fierce and when we stuck together no one could stop us. Such is the power of images and the power of characters in movies and men in real life to inspire and to educate.

As Chuck D of Public Enemy noted years ago, “most of our heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” Simply put the ones who we most often admire are not the same ones that our former slave masters usually refer to as heroes—and when they do, they hope to reduce our heroes to acceptable versions of what those who oppressed us desire to see.

So even in the era of “blaxploitation films,” with their own stereotypes and faults, at least we had men who weren’t bug-eyed and fainting at the thought of danger or running faster than a race horse at a noise.

We finally had brave fighters confronting the enemy and his Black puppets and winning. Here was a celluloid presentation of a Black hero taking on the White men behind the scenes directing, benefitting and controlling negative activity that was before us—and hurting us.

The movie “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” based on the book by Sam Greenlee, took the concept of Black heroes and revolution even further. In that 1973 movie, a Black CIA agent took his training to the ‘hood, politicized and taught gang members how to wage a guerilla war against White oppression.

Today our images of Black men are most often associated with violence, bravado, misogynism, narcissism and excess. Our enemy has made self-destructive gang and thug life fair seeming. And while America has always had a love affair with outlaws, from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde, Whites are in a position to separate fantasy from reality. Their lives in no way reflect the violence projected on-screen in videos.

But in neighborhoods where drug dealing and violence are endemic, these tales and characters are embraced as reflections of Black reality and not the offspring of centuries of oppression.

So with White corporations controlling the rap game and deciding who will and will not get record deals, exposure and air play and White fans buying most of the music, the lyrics and the imagery reflect that which appeals to White sentiments and doesn’t threaten the power structure.

That desire to keep us misled and misdirected is constant and aimed at keeping us unconscious. But imagine if we could have heroes who confronted the enemy and showed us the power of unity; what could we do and what would we strive to be?

(Final Call editor-in-chief Richard B. Muhammad can be reached at editor@ You can also follow him on Facebook and @RMfinalcall on Twitter.)