Jim Kelly Was So Much More Than The World’s First Black Martial Arts Star…

Known for roles in films like Black Belt Jones, Enter The Dragon, and Three The Hard Way, Jim Kelly was a familiar face to lovers of 1970s low-budget films. At drive-in’s and grind-houses, these works may be today remembered as Blaxploitation works—statements on race and culture, big on stereotypes and low on believability.

However, for the late Kelly’s filmography, they may have arguably not made the statements intended (or statements at their initial box-office), but they thrived in other ways. Beyond entertainment value, these mid-’70s works combated the Nixon and Ford era with commentary that power was not exclusively controlled by old white men. Martial arts, bare bodies, and raw stunts may have filled the seats, but many moviegoers left the films with something different.


At The Shadow League, Rhett Butler (a nod to literature and cinema on of itself) looked at Kelly, as well as Dr. Moses Powell. Kelly had studied martial arts since the early 1960s, showing respect, first as a student, then a teacher in the Eastern traditions. The films’ significance are explored two years after Jim’s death, with the following moving passage:

These movies may appear simplistic compared to today’s big budget films and CGI effects, but in the ’70s, stars like Jim Kelly and movies like Three the Hard Way, were trailblazers for a Black America that was struggling to get ahead, especially those in the rough inner cities like New York and Chicago. They demonstrated that Black people could fight back, literally, against racism, oppression and the strangle hold that Hollywood had over the industry and the roles that Black actors were allowed to take on.”

Read “Our Story: Black Impact Within Martial Arts” at The Shadow League.

Related: Check This Chronology Of Kickboxing That Goes Well Beyond Bloodsport