Retro Review: ‘Black Belt Jones’

The month of February is recognized as Black History Month in the United States. This is to honor the rich history of struggles and triumphs of African Americans throughout history, while also acknowledging the work left to do. In honor of Black History Month I have decided to focus my Retro Reviews on important films of black cinema. In my earlier review of Sounder, I discussed that the film was a counterprogramming to the other predominately black films of the 70’s. This 1974 film is the perfect example of the kind of movie Sounder was counterprogrammed towards. The now classic martial arts films from the Shaw Brothers studio had found their way to the United States and kicked off a fandom for movies about kung-fu fighters. In 1973, decorated karate champion Jim Kelly made his acting debut alongside Bruce Lee in the masterpiece Enter the Dragon. Now that he was an actor as well as a legitimate martial artist, Warner Bros. signed Kelly to a deal in the hopes of making him an action hero stateside with this iconic part of the blaxpoitation cinematic movement Black Belt Jones.

When a new civic center is slated to be built, the Mafia wants to find a way to make a profit from it. In order for their scheme to work they need to buy out the land owned by Pop Byrd (played by the great Scatman Crothers) for his karate dojo. When he refuses to sell, the Mafia turns to a local drug dealer named Pinky to use his connection in the black community to put the squeeze on Pop. This forces the old karate instructor to turn to his friend the karate master for hire, Black Belt Jones to protect the school. The problem arises as Pop does not own the dojo, his daughter Sydney does, which makes her the target of the city’s organized crime. When Pinky brings in some tough out of town “Bogarts” to back him up, Black Belt Jones and Sydney realize they have to take to fight to him and his Mafia bosses.

Martial arts films were already a major hit in the black community, thanks to the popularity of Bruce Lee. The fact that star Jim Kelly was already associated onscreen with the Jeet Kune Do founder instantly gave him credibility to average moviegoers. Kelly already had a reputation in Hollywood as the owner of a major dojo whose expertise were sought by actors who needed to beef up their action chops. It was in Long Beach that he had even won the World Middleweight Karate Title. While he may not have had the acting skills of his fellow blaxpoitation icons like Pam Grier or Richard Roundtree, he more than made up for it as a legit tough guy. Every bit of his prowess in karate translates perfectly in Black Belt Jones, his fight scenes are crisp and concise.

While Jim Kelly provides the film with its slick Shaw Brothers-esque elements his co-star Gloria Hendry brought the street level blaxpoitation elements. The former Bond girl had become a mainstay of the black cinema movement of the 70’s most notably in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and the Black Caesar movies. Her character Sydney, fights with a gritty tenacity of someone not looking to take prisoners. At one point she smoothly takes off her heels and uses them to kick the asses of multiple guys three times her size. Together she and Kelly’s character prove to be the perfect pairing which exemplifies the overall style of Black Belt Jones. Director Robert Clouse had a career working on some of the greatest martial arts films of all-time so that part of Black Belt Jones was nothing new for him. But he was also able to expertly blend in the tropes of blaxpoitation. There is a funky soundtrack, urban environment, hip dialogue, and an undeniable overall coolness. The fact that he accomplished so much in a sleek 90 minutes of runtime is worthy of applause.

While Black Belt Jones was far from the only blaxpoitation film to utilize martial arts it is arguably the best. The chemistry between Kelly and Hendry and the top tier action sequences more than make up for any flaws the film may have. It provided black movie audiences who were into the wave of martial arts flicks hitting grindhouse theaters at the time, a karate expert hero of their own to root for in Black Belt Jones. The film even spawned a sequel a follow-up movie Hot Potato which furthered the adventures of Jones though it came at the end of the blaxpoitation era meaning that the momentum for a third film dried up shortly thereafter. That being said, Black Belt Jones is an incredibly fun pulp flick which left quite the mark on 70’s cinema.