Friday, August 20, 2010

JIM KELLY – THE SDAFF CONNECTION


Last week I wrote about Jim Kelly’s guest appearance at the SDAFF’s special outdoor screening of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, where he spoke about his favorite scenes from that film and how he and Lee discussed their commonality of being men of color trying to get ahead not only in 1970’s America, but also in 1970’s Hollywood.

During the screening, between signing autographs and taking pictures with those able to overcome their shyness (alcohol helped quite a few do that), I sat down with Kelly as we shared war stories of being foreigners in Chinese kung fu films during the 1970s.

When I asked what was it like being a black man working in HK he flashed a knowing grin.

“That is a very good question,” he stresses. “I’m surprised more people don’t ask it, but I know where you are coming from because you worked over there in the 1970s, you’ve been there and experienced it. Most people don’t know what it was like.

"The thing is, basically I never had a problem except one time. There was one actor on the set of The Tattoo Connection (1978; aka Black Belt Jones 2: Tattoo Connection) who gave me trouble or problems. He didn’t want to be touched by me.”

As he recalls the past, Kelly’s face frowns. At that moment, I thought about how Lee made a slight-of-hand insinuation about Chinese racism toward blacks when the bare-footed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kicked Lee in the chest during their fight in Game of Death.

In the film, Lee had a black imprint of Kareem’s foot painted on the famous one-piece yellow tracksuit at chest level, as if the black skin color rubbed off on him. But Kelly’s case wasn’t about that.

Kelly continues, “We were doing a fight scene and this actor complained that he didn’t want me to touch him. He told the director that I was blocking too hard. I was just doing routine blocks, but he still complained.

“I was doing my blocks as light as I could and couldn’t do it any lighter or it would have made the fight look weak and fake. You need some contact in order to react.

“So the main problem from this was that now I can’t trust this guy. He has real good kicks, so I really had to be aware during the fights scenes and be attuned because of course he tried to hit me. The fights were almost real as I knew he was trying to take me out for real, but now I was ready for it. But then I was not allowed to touch him. So that was a challenge.”

At the moment of my last question with Kelly, his “favorite” scene popped up on screen as many of the fans seated near Kelly’s fan booth starting whooping it up big time. He graciously smiled and accepted their commaraderie. Scene over, Kelly speaks about his most memorable moments with Bruce Lee.

After a contemplative stare into space he nods, “Basically just sitting down between takes when we’d just talk about life, philosophy, and the struggle about being black and Asian in America

“He asked me once while training, ‘Jim, who taught you that backfist and jab? I mean man, you do it so fast.’ I told him Gordon Doversola taught me.”

Shihan Doversola was a Hawaiian-born teacher of Okinawan-Te, a martial art originating in Okinawa in the early 1600 during the Japanese occupation of Okinawa when the Japanese enforced strict prohibitions and laws. The art stemmed from Chinese boxing (Chuan Fa) and To De (an already existing rudimentary Okinawan island art).

Kelly smirks then adds, “I found out later that Bruce had also taken classes from him too and so he knew and recognized the way I did the backfist.”

Later on in the film, I notice two scenes that might strike the interest of Enter the Dragon fans, things fans may not know.

Years ago I interviewed Yuen Cheung-yan (Yuen Woo-ping’s brother) and he told me that he was in Enter the Dragon for a very shot moment but he didn’t say which scene. Over time I figured out it that he was the guy Bolo cradled in his arms then crushed him amid the loud sounds of breaking the guy’s back.

The other scene is the lasting image from the mirror-room fight between Lee and the villain (in Kelly's character's words), "Mr Han Man."

Han’s body is impaled on a spear similar to a pinned insect from a bug collection, the spear pierced through the mirror-room's door. When Lee leaves the room, he pushes the door and Han's limp body stuck on the spear spins around on the revolving door like on a merry-go-round. Bruce’s daughter Shannon once told me the spear rests in the corner of her living room. Cool.

“When we did a bit training together,” Kelly further recalls, “Lee said that if he was to train me, none of the fighters going around at the time would never have beaten me. I asked him, ‘You even mean so-and-so, and so-and-so?’ (no names) And so on. Bruce said, ‘Yes, I mean them too, they would not have been able to touch you.’”

A moment of silence later, Kelly sadly closes, “But he didn’t live long enough. It never came to pass.”

After Enter the Dragon, Kelly went on to star in nine more films during the 1970s. As it turns out, I wrote in depth about these films in my book The Ultimate Guide Martial Movies of the 1970s to come in Nov. 2010. Kelly may be first in line for the book.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very good blog about Jim Kelly. As for the foot print on Bruce's tracksuit, I don't think that was supposed to be skin. I believe it was dust or dirt from the floor. He kicked him very hard and the footprint was showing just how big he was compared to Bruce. The whole scene was a challange of how to fight a man of such a large size. I'm sure Shannon would be able to clarify that.

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