Black Belt Jones Clobbers the Mob

I wrote the piece below in 2014 as part of the Ludovico Film Institute's series on "Kung-Fu Films." When asked to pick a film from that genre to cover, I cheated stretched the rules a little to make room for a picture that's been one of my all time favorites ever since I discovered it on the "Cult Classics" shelf at my hometown video store: 1974's Black Belt Jones.

Genre is an imperfect language, but its also a very handy tool for us to use when talking about the elusive and intangible qualities of art, music and literature. Film genres, in particular, is a complicated subject and very easy to get carried away with. The movie I’m about to discuss is a perfect example, being fairly recognizable as a “Kung-Fu Movie” (although I guess technically its a “Karate Movie”) by virtue of its frequent and incredibly cinematic martial arts sequences, and also as part of a series of films that carry a sizable amount of cultural baggage: the films that have since come to be known as “Blaxploitation.”

“Blaxploitation” (or “Black Exploitation”) films as a genre are a little unusual in that they encompass a wide variety of films which use the conventions of all manner of other established genres (action, horror, gangster, westerns, detective etc.). The unifying factor is that they were created with the intention of targeting an African American audience by exploiting as many aspects of popular Black Culture as possible (including fashions, music, comedy styles, as well as urban settings and themes). As a result, these films are typically known by -- and criticized for -- their heavy use of (and at times complete reliance on) ethnic stereotypes.

Thomas Cripps used the term “picaresque” in his influential book Black Film as Genre (1978), saying the then emerging body of films were “made with no more ambition than appealing to urban black youngsters by feeding their revenge fantasies.” and that “Unfortunately, like most exploitations of black taste, they concentrated on teasing their audiences rather than fulfilling their hopes, and on exorcising the devils of the tribe rather than celebrating its beauties." (Cripps, 128-129).

Citing instances such as Blackula (1972) and Abby (1975), Cripps goes on to assert that the majority of these films were simply “Counterfeits of white films” which “provided a neat black moral twist, a certain fresh absurdity, and another source of black films.” (Cripps, 53). I think there is certainly a lot of merit to this observation, especially if you only look at the production side of things. But in more recent years, the so called “Blaxpolitation”genre is remembered much more fondly by its many fans. Some of whom, no doubt, enjoy the films from a comfortable historical distance simply for their more outrageous qualities and camp appeal, but there are many others who have read these films as much more profound statements about Black Culture of that era.

I think this is important context to have going in, and is a necessary background to have when looking at these films, which developed out of a very turbulent period of American history and are coated in complex issues of race and representations of race in popular culture. Even though they can be enjoyable and entertaining to watch, if you’re really trying to get at the heart of these films, you can’t really put your head in the sand and talk about them as “just” action movies. All of which is an important conversation, and one that continues to occupy scholars and critics of media, but probably not one best suited for this venue.

SO -- while I’ll probably slip back into it a little, for our purposes here the focus will be less on complexities of cultural representation and appropriation, and instead on the late, great Jim Kelly, and how he “clobbers the mob” as Black Belt Jones.

Producer Fred Wientraub and Director Robert Close followed up Bruce Lee’s classic Enter the Dragon (1973) with a picture clearly designed to capitalize on their success and the boom in films targeted at the young Black market.

Jim Kelly, an American Karate champion who had begun to make a name for himself in Hollywood, had been a memorable character in Lee’s breakout picture and it is very easy to imagine Wientraub quickly seizing on the idea of a “Black Bruce Lee.” Their marketing with this regard is fairly transparent -- going so far as to assign Jim Kelly the nickname “Dragon” if for no other reason than as an excuse to print “Enter” above his name on the poster.

A number of letters featured in Black Belt Magazine’s letters column from that year decry Kelly as copying Lee (Black Belt MagazineJune 1974). Its no wonder martial arts enthusiasts were quick to “defend” Lee in this way. Having died suddenly at what seemed to be the crest of his popularity in 1973, the cult-like veneration of Lee was already going strong when Black Belt Jones was released. And to be fair, these criticisms have a lot of weight.

Bruce Lee’s influence on Kelly’s performance is obvious, as throughout the film he is clearly aping the same facial expressions, “whooping” sound effects and cocky boxer-like mannerisms Lee became famous for. He even shares a similar shirtless physique. However, I would argue that Lee’s film persona as a streetwise, modern, urban fighter is a natural fit for Kelly.
Also, while Kelly, like Lee, is not a particularly strong actor, he has an intangible star quality that really comes through in his physical performances during fight scenes (especially the truck wash climax). So much so, that dismissing Kelly as some kind of "copycat" or otherwise implying his illegitimacy is completely misplaced. 

 That said, the film itself certainly draws heavily on Enter the Dragon in plenty of ways beyond just the poster. For example, BB is also a skilled but semi-cooperative government agent driven by a personal agenda; he also engages in a commando-style raid similar to the one taken by Lee on Han’s island. But you'll find that kind of thing in almost any successful genre entry. 

The film also stars Gloria Hendry, who had co-starred or appeared in a number of films in the preceding years that would have presumably appealed to the same audience Black Belt Jones was after: Hell Up in Harlem (1973), Black Caesar (1973), Across 110th St. (1972), and the "James Bond goes to Harlem" movie, Live and Let Die (1973). That level of exposure lets her hold up the bill as a recognizable name next to relative newcomer Kelly. Hendry’s performance is solid as Sydney (daughter of Black Belt Jones's mentor), and she and Kelly have good on-screen chemistry..

The story features many trappings of Action/Adventure films (including a Mission Impossible style heist sequence -- featuring bikini clad trampoline acrobats and a car chase through the Hollywood hills with Kelly behind the wheel of a boss Mustang Mach One); but the plot is essentially an archetypal martial arts film narrative -- “An exceptionally skilled and virtuous pupil is called to protect his school/temple from an (evil) rival school; his master is killed by these rivals and our hero then seeks (and finds) revenge.” -- that is overlaid by a Blaxploitation-style picaresque and accompanying semantics. Here the “Shaolin Temple” is an all Black Karate Dojo in the inner city, the ”wise old master” is the erasable Scatman Crothers (“Pop Byrd”), and villainous rivals the local street gang lead by pompous “Pinky”.

Black Belt Jones initially turns down an offer from an unidentified law enforcement agency to raid a Mafia owned winery/money laundering front (“Why don’t you just call the cats upstairs? Have them make believe its a ghetto -- Get a coupla tanks and blast it down.”); but eventually accepts after learning the connection the Mob had to Pop Byrd’s death. BB teams up with Pop’s daughter Sydney, students from the school and the aforementioned bikini trampoline girls to carry out the mission; stealing a large sum of cash at the same time to use to set up Pinky.

Pinky and his men are introduced as selfish drug pushers who are clearly and knowingly preying on the Black Community and following in the vein of other popular Blaxploitation narratives, they are also working with (in a clearly subservient role) White-operated organized crime (who themselves had been shown to be in league with corrupt white politicians). This connection sets up Pinky as not only a villain, and an “Uncle Tom,” but as a stand in for many real life ills plaguing urban Black communities.

Gloria Hendry’s Sydney fits the mold of the archetype personified by Pam Grier's performances in Coffy (1973) , Foxy Brown (1974) et. al. A young Black woman who is independent, sexually liberated, socially conscious and is generally a female match for the male protagonist.

BB is definitely the focus of majority of the action in this film, but Sydney gets some excellent moments to shine -- in one scene she confronts a group of Pinky’s flunkies, and calmly starts unbuttoning her skirt when they threaten her. They assume she is putting on a show for their titilation, when in fact she’s just preparing to karate-kick the crap out of them -- which she then proceeds to do in spectacular fashion. In another scene, BB, trying to keep her from getting involved with his quest to destroy organized crime, tells her to “do the dishes.” Sydney calmly aims a revolver and blows the dishes to pieces and proclaims: “They’re done.”

Isaac Hayes’ Academy Award Winning “Theme from Shaft” became synonymous with the genre, and Curtis Mayfield’s critically acclaimed soundtrack to Superfly (essentially a concept album in its own right that far surpasses the film on almost every level) continues to enjoy a prominent place in our cultural consciousness. But I would challenge anyone to find a better theme song than Dennis Coffey and Luchi De Jesus’ "Theme from Black Belt Jones".

Probably the funkiest piece of music I’ve heard in my entire life -- I remember very clearly being completely blown away by the opening scene the first time I’d seen it (and every time since).

[Quick aside: In high school, I recorded this song onto a portable Dictaphone which I kept in my coat pocket so that I could play it when I entered buildings and use it as my own theme song. It was not as impressive as I’d hoped, so I only actually did this once or twice.]

Even though the martial arts action of the opening scene is a little tame, mostly hindered by the slow motion filming and freeze frames for the credits, when coupled with the INCREDIBLE theme song it essentially creates a perfect miniature version of the entire film. Everything you need to know about the character is expressed in its purest form during this sequence:

Black Belt Jones, wearing a stylish light blue leisure outfit, white platform shoes and a large, perfectly groomed afro, walks outside to discover a parking lot full of would-be (white/Asian) assassins. The music starts and BB easily lays waste to the thugs with his bare hands, leaving their unconscious bodies littered over an empty police car. The clueless (white) cop returns from his coffee run just in time to see BB calmly step into his sleek yellow sports car and race off (to the approval of a small group of important looking older white men).

Black Belt is not only incredibly proficient at martial arts, but in the picaresque tradition, he is also “from the streets” which manifests in two main ways: a strong desire to improve things for the Black community (particularly in his old neighborhood -- why he needs to protect the school and “clobber the mob”), and an affinity for defeating his opponents with guile (and style) as much as martial prowess.

The plot point of BB setting up Pinky for the commando raid on the Mafia base is a great example of this; as is the scene where he attacks Pinky’s men in the darkened Dojo. BB’s tactic of having his friend turn the lights on and off every few seconds disorients Pinky and co. and fools them into thinking that they are up against larger numbers, but it also is clearly used as an opportunity to embarrass the gangsters. Their dialogue during this sequence is full of humorous exchanges pointing out their incompetence, and BB is constantly shown playing with them as much as fighting them.

At the start of the fight, when one crook asks who hit him, BB replies “Batman, Motherfucker!” in a mock booming voice before ambushing the rest of the gang. For one flash of light, BB is seen wearing one of the thug’s hats, and ultimately he tricks the crooks into jumping out of a window by saying loudly that his friend should release the attack dogs. At the conclusion of the scene, BB is laughing with his friend and giving him high fives.

This scene is not only fun to watch as a clever action set-piece, but also from getting to see a young star on the rise just enjoying himself. The bit with the hat feels improvised, as does the hilarious “Batman” line -- and the laughter feels genuine.

I think this speaks to why these films were so endearing -- even if they were conceived as cheap, heartless corporate cash-grabbing enterprises (by largely all-White owned production companies), they were actually made by people who clearly loved what they did, and their enthusiasm shines through in these kinds of moments.

The final fight scene at the sanitation dept’s truck wash has to be seen to be believed -- its really one of those rare gems that you run across after sitting through untold hours of grindhouse drek that reminds you why you watch this stuff.

Two whole years before Car Wash and its accompanying disco hit theme song, Black Belt Jones, clad only in his blue swimming trunks, wields a rubber hose like nun-chucks and dispatches a small army of thugs (who are then loaded into a near by garbage truck) surrounded by knee high soap suds and driving funk music. The fighting is probably the best in the whole film, lots of inventive moves, a few improvised weapons and plenty of humor thrown in. Worth the price of admission all on its own.

If you'd like to learn more about Black Belt Jones, visit your local library!

Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak. Walker et. al. Scarecrow Press, 2009.

That's Blaxploitation! Roots of the Badasssss 'Tude (Rated X By an All-Whyte Jury). James, Darius. St. Martins Press, 1995.

Black Film as Genre. Cripps, Thomas. Indiana University Press, 1979.