My First Love of the Screen: Jim Kelly

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Roberts Vaughn and Conrad had held a groovy crush around my heart for most of my elementary school preteen years. Each week, I begged my great-grandparents to stay up past 9:30 to see how these cute and cool men would use their latest gadgetry to outwit a nemesis that threatened to destroy the planet. Though the worlds of “UNCLE” and “WEST” were literally a hundred years apart, both were populated with colorful and charismatic villains. Finite knowledge of the weaponry and methods were valuable ‘currencies of cool’ to my classmates during recess the next day. Yet, unbeknownst to them, it was my fantasy of being the episode’s featured love interest that kept me coming back week-to-week.

When I migrated from the farm up to Port Chester, New York in 1974, I quickly abandoned my habitual TV consumption, and I engaged in the more urban pastime of going to Sunday matinees at the Embassy Theatre up on North Main with my new junior high classmates. SPARKLE, COOLEY HIGH and CLAUDINE were among the movies that inspired me during these formative years to pursue a career in film.

I wasn’t really into martial arts movies; but I loved Bruce Lee when he played Kato on the GREEN HORNET. So I definitely had to check out ENTER THE DRAGON when it played in a double feature with FISTS OF FURY. Though Bruce’s lightning speed packed some piercing punches, it was Jim Kelly who entered my 14-year old heart the first time he appeared on the screen. It wasn’t until I saw the movie the fifth time – all sliced and diced with commercials on TV – that I paid attention to the storyline enough to know what the movie was actually about. Definitely ‘The Crush of the Century’, I collected every picture of Jim Kelly I could find from “Right On,” “Black Stars” and “Black Belt” magazines. I no longer had a room of my own to display my pin-up treasures. So I kept them in my 3-ring binder, where they became a handy visual balm during Mr. Goldschmidt’s painfully dry monologues about horse breeding in Biology class.

Needless to say, I bought the first tickets on opening days to THREE THE HARD WAY, BLACK BELT JONES, HOT POTATO, TAKE A HARD RIDE and BLACK SAMARAI. I never remembered the storylines for any of these films, other than the fact that Jim Kelly colorfully kicked the ass of every villain that crossed his path. I silently prayed that one day I’d add a Kelly hyphenate to my name, and glide along the red carpet with him into the premieres of his films. After which, I would take him home and make him my best veal parmesan – the only dish I knew how to make at the time. Jim-Kelly-e1372715106102

While strutting up the red carpet to my own premieres, or those of friends, two decades later, I often wondered if Jim would ever show up. When it was rumored that he was coming to the premiere of the Jim Brown documentary, I hovered the lobby of the WGA Theatre like an LAPD copter until well after the opening credits were over. I asked several producer colleagues about him – feigning that I wanted to discuss a project – but no one seemed to know what he was up to, or how to contact him.

Long before Denzel, Wesley or Idris, Jim Kelly was a sex symbol to us colored girls who had only seen one end of the rainbow when it came to matinee idols. His chiseled cheekbones, nose and lips. His perfect pear-shaped ‘fro, replete with sideburns. India.Arie’s “Brown Skin” would have been a perfect theme song for a TV show starring him. I’ve no doubt that if Jim Kelly were at the prime of his career today, he’d give Denzel a run for some box office dollar; and 14-year old girls of every hue would be as spellbound as I was upon first glance at his swift kicking package.

Monday’s news of Jim Kelly’s death underscored several priceless lessons I’ve committed to embody. Among them are to beat down procrastination, spend my time far more wisely, be consistent, and silence the committee in my head screaming, “who cares about what you think about what you watch?”

When I launched “For Love Of The Screen” (a/k/a FLOTS), my intention was to “say nice things about things I’ve seen”. Because, let’s face it, media-driven people are so quick to trash, find fault and *opinionize* even the greatest visual works. So, for what it’s worth, my contribution to the game with FLOTS is simply to ‘show some love’. There are few things on the plethora of screens taking up time and space these days that “give me the fever”. So I’ll dedicate most posts to childhood favorites or recently discovered classics unearthed in the library (shout out to the Nashville Public Library for its outstanding film collection), on Netflix and Hulu.

images-1Regardless of the beat down from the committee in my head, I couldn’t remain silent about my love of the screen when I heard about Jim Kelly’s death. For he was one of my great loves of the screen. I truly wish our paths had crossed. That we had worked together. Or even shared a cup of tea. Nevertheless, I will always be grateful for his having inspired me with the excellence of his craft; and giving me the fever by “being too busy looking good.”

Time is priceless… Voice is a gift… Show your love!

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