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.
I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the blaxploitation subgenre is precarious. On one hand, the subgenre included some of the first American films that featured black characters in leading and prominent roles, commented on the oppression of black Americans that was ingrained in American society, and promoted outlooks associated with the Black Power movement. On the other hand, a lot of these films would glorify some of the negative stereotypes associated with predominantly black communities, such as high crime rates and violent activity. Regardless of your feelings about the films themselves, blaxploitation has left a permanent mark on how African American life can be depicted in popular culture. In its own strange way, 1974’s Three the Hard Way mostly succeeds as both a pseudo-political, Afrocentric parable and an exciting, hardcore action flick.
Three the Hard Way was directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr., son of famous photographer and blaxploitation pioneer Gordon Parks. The younger Parks was no stranger to handling contentious subject matter, as evidenced by the fact that he directed the successful but divisive crime drama Super Fly two years before Hard Way’s release. With Hard Way, Parks makes a smooth transition into action filmmaking and does a pretty solid job of translating Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig’s provocative story of a heroic black trio’s quest to stop a sinister white supremacist plot to poison every black person in America into a well-structured film. Of the three leads, Jim Kelly gives the best performance despite having very little to do beyond demonstrating his mastery of Okinawan karate and staring intensely at his foes. Three-time American Football League All-Star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson brings some necessary charm and humor to the proceedings, while Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown acquits himself well in the action set pieces but acts a little stilted in scenes that demand more emotional weight. Sheila Frazier, who previously worked with Parks on Super Fly, does the best she can in a limited role as the love interest of Brown’s character and Jay Robinson (Emperor Caligula in The Robe) and Richard Angarola are appropriately unpleasant as the racist villains. The film’s themes of black empowerment are consistently applied, the action scenes hit all the right beats and the film moves at a quick pace, although there are a few slow spots where songs by the Impressions play over long montages of characters walking around or driving vehicles.
If you’ve only heard about Three the Hard Way, I suggest you check it out. The story may be incendiary, especially by our current standards, but its message of Black Power rings true even now.
For Black History Month, I’ve decided to take a look at two of the strangest films starring one of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation era. The man in question is Jim Kelly, the actor and martial artist who is best known for his portrayal of Williams in the groundbreaking 1973 action classic Enter the Dragon. Most of Kelly’s roles were demonstrations of his proficiency in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate, which earned him the World Middleweight Karate Title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Since his appearance in Dragon, Kelly became a rising action star during the 70s, starring in such notable films as Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, but the subjects of my joint review don’t share the same amount of fanfare. Let’s take a look at 1977’s Black Samurai and 1978’s Death Dimension and see how they stack up.
Both films feature Kelly as some sort of law enforcement agent dealing with the bizarre machinations of a crazed supervillain with nothing but his wits and his martial arts prowess. The main difference is that Samurai is an adaptation of a popular adventure novel series written by Marc Olden, an African-American mystery author with black belts in karate and aikido. Besides Kelly, the other thread that ties these films together is the presence of infamous B-movie horror director Al Adamson. Although both films are structurally similar to many low-budget thrillers of the era (right down to the excessive amount of fun but pointless action scenes and gratuitous sex appeal to make up for the boilerplate story), Adamson brings a sense of tension and an affection for outlandish imagery that can only come from a director who’s honed his craft in exploitation cinema, which give the films a distinct style. The performances are more of a mixed bag, with both films relying on Kelly’s charisma and athleticism to make them something watchable. Dimension is notable for featuring two alumni of the James Bond film series, with former 007 George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) giving a formulaic performance as a police chief and Harold Sakata (Oddjob from Goldfinger) hamming it up as the ice-bomb-wielding gangster known as the Pig. For the sake of comparison, one of the biggest stars in Samurai is Felix Silla of Addams Family and Buck Rogers fame, portraying a henchman working for a Voodoo-practicing crime lord nicknamed the Warlock.
Overall, I’d say both films have something of merit. Between the two, Black Samurai has a more fascinating premise and crazier fights but Death Dimension is more focused and consistent in its storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a fun bit of campy action or a decent showcase of Jim Kelly’s considerable martial arts skills, this funkadelic duo should hit the spot.