Jim Kelly is an American and Worldwide Martial Arts Star, who gained fame starring as “Williams” in Enter The Dragon with the legendary Bruce Lee. Enter The Dragon was the first American produced martial arts film. Released August 19th, 1973, Enter The Dragon quickly raised Bruce Lee to the level of cult figure. In 2004, Enter The Dragon was judged to be culturally significant, and selected for preservation in The National Film Registry.
Since Enter The Dragon, Jim Kelly himself has become an American icon. He’s known for a number of “Blaxploitation” movies including Melinda and Black Belt Jones.
Jim Kelly, at WonderCon SF to meet fans, stopped to talk about what he remembered about Bruce Lee and how society has changed for African Americans and Chinese Americans. Kelly says he met Lee while making the film, but “I was looking for him before that. In 1970, I was looking to train with him, so I went down to Chinatown and I couldn’t find his school. But on the set, between shoots, we trained a lot together.”
Kelly says that the cast of Enter The Dragon didn’t know they were making a cult film; they were just looking to make a “very good film.”
What Kelly remembers about Bruce Lee is they both “had similar struggles” being people of color in America. Race relations in the United States have changed so much from the 70s that a whole generation has grown up without an intimate knowledge of the culture then. Kelly says that Bruce Lee had “caught hell” in Hollywood because he was Chinese. “They didn’t want him in Hollywood,” Kelly said.
Kelly asserts that Kung Fu, the TV show that starred the late David Carradine, was “made for Bruce Lee.” That claim is backed by Bruce Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell, who in her book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew said Bruce Lee created the concept in 1971 for the series which was then stolen by Warner Bros.
Kelly says the writer of the series Kung Fu took the script to Bruce Lee and Lee wanted to do it. The writer, Kelly explains, went to the major studios, who loved the project and “Hey, everything’s good. We just can’t have a Chinese guy that starred in an American (film). So we gotta get a white guy and make him look half-Chinese. But we don’t want Bruce because he’s Chinese.”
This part of our discussion was the source of some controversy on YouTube because of the generational lack of education on what is called institutional racism in America, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. The lack of desire to hear a discussion of a racial issue is complicated by the fact that the Warner Bros-studio-related explanations of why Bruce Lee was not selected for Kung Fu are watered down to remove any obvious concern about Bruce Lee as a Chinese American. Thus, we have two views: the Asian and progressive view and the white studio explanation.
Jim Kelly said Bruce Lee went to Hong Kong to get a “break” in the movies.
When asked if society had improved racially since Enter The Dragon, he says things have improved but not near where they should be “Not even close.” But he thinks President Obama is the sign of a new period in the World where it has a new image of black men. In fact, Kelly’s vote for Obama for President was the first one he ever cast in his life.
Jim Kelly closed our talk by explaining some people though he was dead. Obviously that’s not the case. In fact, in 2006 Kelly starred with LeBron James in a Nike Commercial that was ultimately considered “blasphemous” and banned in China called Chamber of Fear. Here it is:Yes, Jim Kelly’s still with us and meeting his fans at conventions around the country. Hopefully, Quentin Tarrentino will find a way to get Jim Kelly into one of his movies.