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Martial arts films first proved successful with African American audiences in the 1970s

Stefan Andrews

From Hong Kong to the USA

When it comes down to the film-making industry, there are some specific series of events that well deserve our attention, regardless of how marginalized their status might look like when keeping in mind the wider picture for this industry.

Long before the UFC gained momentum with its mixed martial arts and fighting, it was the martial arts movies from the 1970’s and 1980’s that promoted combat sports in the USA and around the world. Throughout the two decades, thousands of movies made their way on the TV channels featuring stars from Japan, Korea, Thailand, but also the USA.


Cartoon by Neal Adams depicting the final fight between Lee and Han from Enter the Dragon (Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, October 1975). Photo   Credit
Cartoon by Neal Adams depicting the final fight between Lee and Han from Enter the Dragon (Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, October 1975). Photo Credit

Enormous stars rocked the world of martial arts, making the combat sports more and more popular. Names like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and Jet Li became not only recognized but idols for many generations. The popularity of these movies lasted through the 90’s as well, and what the creators of these movies did not plan, but certainly came out as some sort of positive social benefit, was that the martial arts movies will play their role in defying class and race barriers across the States.

Actor Jim Kelly was the first African American martial arts film star, who co-starred along with Bruce Lee in one of the most popular martial arts movies of all times, Enter the Dragon, in 1973.

Kelly’s role was originally planned for another actor, Rockne Tarkington, but Tarkington had unexpectedly dropped out just a couple of days before the shooting in Hong Kong, the magical geographical realm of martial arts movie studios which ‘lured’ fighters to show up on the big screen.

Jim kelly is the Black Samurai. Screenshot.
Jim kelly is the Black Samurai. Screenshot.

Enter the Dragon

Before the shooting of Enter the Dragon, Jim Kelly was an owner of a karate studio in downtown Los Angeles. He was an excellent fighter and his skillfulness is what captured the attention of the Hong Kong producers, who constantly sought new talents at domestic territory in Asia and across the States as well. Kelly virtually stood out and at once joined a movie co-starring with Bruce Lee.

By 1973, Bruce Lee was already a well-established actor within the martial arts movies industry, but Jim Kelly was a sort of novelty as an African-American martial arts master. Hence, the release of Enter the Dragon went pretty well with the general audiences, including the African-American one.

It was an educational message for everybody, that it doesn’t matter what color, race or creed you are if you are well-skilled in martial arts fighting. As one of the first actors who starred in movies that united components of the controversial Blaxsploiation genre, and Kung Fu, Kelly’s movies really brought together people of all races.

Photo of Bruce Lee from the film Fists of Fury.
Photo of Bruce Lee from the film Fists of Fury.


Enter the Dragon certainly introduced a new era for the martial arts movies industry, that further developed in the following decades.

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Later on, Kelly earned a three-film contract with the Warner Bros, among which Three the Hard Way in 1974, co-starring with Jim Bron and Fred Williamson, and Hot Potato in 1976, where he saves the daughter of a diplomat from the jungles in Thailand. By all means, his appearance on the big screen broke stereotypes and well promoted social cohesion.

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.