Release Date: January 28th, 1974
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Written by: Alexandra Rose, Fred Weintraub, Oscar Williams
Music by: Dennis Coffey
Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Scatman Crothers
Warner Bros., 87 Minutes
Black Belt Jones is one of my favorite films in the 1970s blaxploitation genre. It mixes two things really well, blaxploitation and kung fu; two big staples of urban filmgoers’ diets in the 1970s.
While other films utilized this combination, Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite immediately coming to mind, it was the films starring Jim Kelly that had a real martial arts authenticity to them, as he was a legitimate world karate champion with a multitude of major tournament wins. He also starred alongside Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, which gave him immense credibility. In any event, the proof is in the pudding, as Kelly executed the most impressive fight moves in the history of blaxploitation film.
The film also features Gloria Hendry, who came off as one of the most bad ass female characters in the genre, if not in the entire history of cinema. Her character of Sydney was a martial arts expert who could hold her own alongside Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones. She also brought a certain level of street cred to the picture, as she starred alongside Fred Williamson in Black Caesar and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem, a year earlier. She was also a Bond Girl in 1973’s Live and Let Die.
Scatman Crothers, a longtime favorite of mine, plays a small role but he has a major impact on the story and he takes over every time you see him on the screen during the first act of the film. Crothers always had a strong presence in everything he did, which is probably why filmmaking auteur Stanley Kubrick hired him to play Dick Halloran in his horror masterpiece The Shining.
The plot of Black Belt Jones is a pretty simple one that hits all the blaxploitation notes and utilizes the tropes that come along with it. It’s not necessarily well written but its strengths come with its execution. Creatively, this was something new in the genre because of the talent and credibility of its two stars.
There are a few highlights in the film.
The first is the sequence where Sydney kicks her heels off and, to the surprise of everyone in the room and the audience watching, whips the shit out of a gang of thugs. She is like a kung fu pixie versus a band of evil heavies that dwarf her.
The second highlight is the final battle where Black Belt Jones and Sydney take on the big crime bosses in a parking lot that is covered in suds and bubbles. It is a bizarre scene but it is visually stunning and a neat sequence. They both throw kicks and punches, annihilating their enemies with ease, as suds fly with every strike. Ultimately, it is really a memorable scene because of its oddness but somewhat cute nature.
Black Belt Jones is not a tour de force of filmmaking skill but it is a hell of a good time and cashes in at just under 90 minutes. It marries the blaxploitation and kung fu genres perfectly and it has a great sense of humor. It wasn’t intended to be serious and it doesn’t act as if it is. It is playful, exciting and most importantly, bad ass.