Jim Kelly, who passed away on June 29th, was the star of Black Belt Jones (1974). It was the first martial arts movie that I ever saw up on the silver screen. Although only five-years-old at that time, I still easily recall many of the details of that evening. Uppermost among them was the excitement that I felt walking out of the theater into the night with my parents and four-year-old sister--and how she and I launched little kung-fu kicks into air on our way to the family car.
Like so many other African-American children who grew up in this country in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights struggle, the gulf between movie heroes and heroines within whom we could regularly see our brown faces reflected was both deep and vast. But along with actors like Diane Carroll, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Billy Dee Williams, Teresa Graves, and a smattering of others, Jim Kelly was one of the proudly watched, though rarely visible few.
Admittedly, for me in those very formative years it was Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee who were my two biggest pop culture idols. But Jim Kelly was placed high among them on very short list. And though he had only appeared in a few films -- even fewer of which were actually good films -- the impression that he made on me, and so many others like me, was positive, strong, and long lasting.
Nearly four years ago this month, while attending the San Diego Comicon in 2009, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Jim Kelly. And though I've never been much in the way of anybody's fanboy, I found myself that day temporarily awestruck. But then, for me, there was actually so much more involved with meeting Jim Kelly than just meeting Jim Kelly.
In the theoretical principle of six-degrees of separation, it's said that a connection between any two people located anywhere in the world could be established through the identification of five or fewer shared acquaintances. You know such-and-such, who knows so-and-so, who knows blasé-skippy-woo-woo. Well, because Jim had known both Lee and Ali, being in his presence for that brief moment made me feel somehow much more closely connected to all of my boyhood idols.
Yesterday, in the wake of Jim’s passing, my buddy Joe Doughrity (Akira's Hip-Hop Shop) gave a touching remembrance on his Facebook page. There he mentioned that he'd also met Jim at a comic convention. But this meeting was much more recent than mine, having occurred just in the past few months. Fortunately, due to the growing popularity of such conventions, people like he and I will often get a chance to shake the hands of some of the pop culture figures that we looked up to as kids. Master Jim Kelly was one of them.
Feeling a tad bit overwhelmed at the moment, and losing my way on just how I should close this post, I’ll defer to Joe, who I think summed it best when he said of Master Kelly that: "He fought the good fight."
That he did, true believers. That he did.
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