Junkfood Cinema: Black Belt Jones

By  · Published on February 4th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; scientifically proven. This is the weekly internet column with a permanent case of the munchies. Every Friday I serve up a jive cinematic turkey which I then proceed to slap all up and down with snark. But I temper that by showering it with sweet, sweet affection because I am in fact a lover of bad movies. Wow, is it hot in here or is it just…wholly inappropriate. To complete this weird little combo plate, I will then pair the film with a themed snack food item that will judo kick you in the intestines the way the movie backhands your brain.

It is February again and, apart from marmots predicting the weather and an onslaught of inedible candy hearts in the forecast, that can only mean one thing: Blaxploitation History Month! As should be readily apparent to everyone at this point, I am something of a fan of various types of ‘sploitations, but my favorite of the lot has to be the incredibly entertaining, if often more-than-mildly offensive blaxploitation. We can argue the merits/problems with this subgenre all day, but the fact is that it produced several certified badass films and propelled to stardom many performers who otherwise may not have had an opportunity to shine. As such, the month of February will be devoted to showcasing four more of my favorite blaxploitation films.

Today’s snack: Black Belt Jones

What Makes it Bad?

Black Belt Jones is another of the blaxploitation martial arts films starring Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon fame. Here again, demonstrating his immeasurable range, Kelly plays a street-wise martial arts expert who takes none too kindly to being pushed around. Black Belt Jones has many of the comfortably familiar tropes of blaxploitation. The villain is, of course, the Italian mafia who in this case are trying to buy up an entire city block and have but one holdout, the local dojo. So essentially Jim Kelly is called into save the rec center…with his fists. This, like any given film in history, could have benefited from more break-dancing. The other strange, but familiar, trope is the random fits of rapping. It’s one thing if the character rapping is an aspiring young hip-hop artist displaying his burgeoning talents. It’s quite another when it’s an oafish, impossibly elderly gangster rhyming “coins” with references to his “loins.” It isn’t often that someone can lend serious credibility to the rap skills of Dolemite.

The romance is Black Belt Jones, true to most blaxploitation, is hilariously terrible. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen my share of bad love scenes in this genre and I’ve even seen a few that have lacked romance. But the scene wherein Black Belt Jones finally gets with his lady friend really does flirt shamelessly with rape. She does the coy, “come and get me” ploy but it quickly devolves into “if I want that, I can take it” which suggests an association between sex and violence that only frat boys and L.A. Lakers starting point guards truly appreciate. But hey, at least he refuses to let her put her panties on before they run from the bad guys; “no time” indeed…pervert. Also, why must their love play involve smashing a hippie’s guitar? You don’t see me smashing Al Gore’s energy-saving light bulbs every time I get lucky, do you?

Black Belt Jones, due to its straddling of the lesser known Brucesploitation subgenre, actually goes so far as to invent genre conventions of it own. The first would be the way it satisfies itself that audience members who aren’t themselves proficient in martial arts will accept any physical action as martial arts as long as it is paired with shouting. The establishing shot of the dojo features a sensei screaming and apparently trying to figure out how his arms work. It would be the height of absurdity but then he grabs a nearby student and says, “take over.” At which point the student does the exact same shouting and flailing with a similar ignorance of anything resembling martial arts. It seems ripped straight from a spoof but is played with absolute sincerity. And as much as I like Scatman Crothers, his casting as the grand high sensei of the dojo is…questionable. Somehow I don’t think having Hong Kong Phooey on your resume qualifies you to play Mr. Miyagi; sort of in the same way that voicing Fred Flintstone doesn’t make you a paleontologist.

Why I Love It!

I kick myself that I subjected myself to Black Samurai before Black Belt Jones. Black Samurai, which I covered for last year’s Blaxploiation History Month, makes Black Belt Jones look like The Godfather. The story is more interesting, the dialogue is 150,000 times stronger, and even the fight sequences are better. Jim Kelly and Gloria Hendry bring their A-game and knock a whole slew of suckas on their asses. Kelly’s technical skill and his raucous, punctuating shouts remind one of Bruce Lee with an afro. The scene where Black Belt Jones takes down an entire gang by turning on and off the lights is not only fantastic, but also serves as an adequate warning against ever playing flashlight tag with Jim Kelly. I also defy you not to be aroused by Jim Kelly’s bubble fight, oh yes. And how can you not love Hendry walking into a pool hall full of gangsters, calling them all “sick faggots,” and proceeding to beat them all half to death? Awesome!

The absurdity in Black Belt Jones is overwhelmingly endearing. I love the fact that Jones has a whole army of female gymnasts at his disposal. Well, when I say gymnasts, I mean that they know how to jump on a trampoline. It’s the kind of talent that can only come from years of…living in the midwest and having a backyard. Also, there is a funeral scene in this film that will go down as one of the greatest of all time. Let’s just say that when my time comes, probably from choking to death on the world’s largest fried Snickers bar, you can save the tears and kind words. All I want is a karate student, wearing his ceremonial gi, to do an entire kata routine in front of my open casket before bowing and walking away. It’s as if they’re burying Ralph Macchio. Instead of just his career.

I love the siege on the mafia hideout near the end of the film. It’s just plain bold all the way around. Thinking that spraying a fire extinguisher on an alarm bell will somehow keep it from sounding? Bold! Wearing a stocking cap over your formidable afro which makes you look like kung-fu Eraserhead? Bold! Insisting on wearing all black despite the fact you are executing a raid in the middle of the afternoon? Super bold!

Junkfood Pairing: McDonald’s

One of the most outlandishly, inexplicably awful moments in this film, or any other, comes just after Black Belt Jones successfully plays his two enemies off one another. He informs the mob that the local crime lord is paying him off with his own money, hangs up the phone, and steps out of the phone booth to greet his adoring cohorts. At which point he shouts, “hey hey let’s go to McDonald’s” unleashing a cacophony of cheering. At no point in the film does any character mention McDonald’s nor is this moment followed by a scene in which we actually see these characters eating at McDonald’s so it doesn’t even qualify as product placement. It was as if they tossed out the script and told Jim Kelly to say the first thing that popped into his brain. In honor of this evidence of the first case of fast food turrets syndrome, stuff a McNugget or two into your face.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.