“Man, I’d rather be dead than not have any bread”: Black Belt Jones

Since the 1970’s, African-American culture has developed a very strong interest in the world of martial arts. The reasons behind the connection are numerous and complex but for the purpose of this review, let’s focus on the impact of martial arts cinema on the black American community. After his breakout role in the classic Enter the Dragon, martial artist Jim Kelly was offered a three-film contract with Warner Brothers, the studio that was responsible for Dragon‘s international distribution. The first of these projects is 1974’s Black Belt Jones, a blaxploitation action film helmed by Dragon director Robert Clouse. Jones is the first starring role for Kelly, who plays the title character. This film may have helped to make Kelly a notable action star during the 70’s but let’s see if it holds up on its own merits.

The threadbare plot of Black Belt Jones, written by the team of Oscar Williams, Alexander Rose and Dragon producer Fred Weintraub, deals with the title character’s efforts to protect a martial arts dojo from an alliance of criminals who seek to control it. The story revolving around a black-owned karate school is a admirable nod to the connection between black culture and Asian martial arts, which adds some thematic texture to this standard heroic tale. Of course, the fight scenes are as intense as they need to be and are creatively shot, with the highlight being a brawl in a room where the lights flicker on and off. As I mentioned, this is Kelly’s first lead role and, in some spots, it shows. He’s still charming in the comedic scenes and thrilling in the action sequences but he seems limited in more dramatic scenes. It doesn’t help that the chemistry that he has with his castmates here is not as vibrant as it would be with his co-leads in Three the Hard Way, which was released a few months after Jones. The Shining’s Scatman Crothers, a debuting Malik Carter (Cobra) and Gloria Hendry (Live and Let Die) are the bright spots of the cast, fully embodying their characters. Crothers’s fight scene in the dojo is easily the coolest non-Kelly fight in the movie with Hendry’s pool hall scuffle coming in second. If the film has a flaw, it’s the strange performance of Andre Philippe (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) as the main villain. Philippe seems to fluctuate between a generic portrayal of a mobster and a parody of that same portrayal. On the other hand, Carter’s humorous yet threatening performance as an egotistical drug dealer is a lot of fun to watch.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Black Belt Jones. It provides a highly entertaining look into an overlooked segment of African-American culture, as well as a demonstration of Jim Kelly’s amazing talents. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of old-school action cinema.

Credit: Trailer Chan