Hey, remember Scatman Crothers? You know …the voice of Hong Kong Phooey? Dick Hallorann from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the only other person (besides Danny) in the film to exhibit that titular power? Remember that likable fellow? Have you ever wanted to see him punched in the face until dead? You didn’t? Oh. Well then, maybe Black Belt Jones isn’t for you, after all.
This is undoubtedly a “genre fulfilling” month for Of Dreck & Drink, the product of looking at my past history and realizing that I’d never tackled a “blaxploitation” classic. If you don’t know, blaxploitation is a subgenre of film that exploded into popularity in the 1970s, at first targeted specifically at black, urban audiences. They presented typical genre pictures (action, crime, martial arts, horror, comedy, etc) with the not-so-subtle twist of filling their entire casts with black actors, setting the action to funk and soul music, and generally being the cheesiest things imaginable. We’re talking movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song here. Films like Shaft. Like Three the Hard Way. Even like the self-parodying Dolemite. You can say this for blaxploitation—it went from its invention to biting self-parody in record time. There’s only a couple of years between its invention in 1971 and the farcical parody of Dolemite in 1975. That’s a pretty self-aware genre, all things considered.
Black Belt Jones, on the other hand, is hilariously sincere most of the time, despite being on the later side in 1974. As the titular character, it stars karate champion Jim Kelly, fresh off his star-making appearance in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon one year earlier. It is in pretty much all respects the perfect example of an archetypal blaxploitation feature, which makes it ideal for our purposes.
And lo and behold, I also have the ideal beer, and I mean ideal. Never before, in fact, have I had a beer that so perfectly fits its theme, because I managed to find a blaxploitation parody to match this blaxploitation film, Red Brick Brewing Co.’s “Thick Silky” Double Chocolate Oatmeal Porter. A pimp dressed like Willy Wonka, brandishing revolvers akimbo? That’s exactly the label this feature needs, thank you very much. To quote the hilariously on-point bottle text:
”Thick Silky is a man with a plan and a Kung Fu backhand, you dig? He runs the chocolate game in this city, and when it comes to all the haters he shows no pity. With his fine, foxy ladies sitting pretty in a tricked-out ‘73 Cadillac DeVille, he’s down with the double chocolate oatmeal scene and keeping it real.”
Are these the finest attempts at rhyme we’ve heard? They are most certainly not—but worthy of a tip of our pimp hats for effort, certainly.
The story of Black Belt Jones is not hard to grasp: A gang of Italian mafiosos are snatching up land in an area of the city that will soon be increasing in value. The only building they haven’t acquired yet? That would be the karate school where Black Belt Jones trains, headed up by Scatman Crothers as the least believable martial arts master of all time. Seriously, the guy is tertiarily involved in a few fight scenes, but his attempts at throwing a punch are largely derived through creative editing, rather than any overexerted movement of his brittle limbs. He looks like he should be put on a rocking chair on the porch and ensconced with a layer of bubble wrap, just in case.
Not that he’s around for too long, mind you. As earlier suggested, the Italian gang (who are headed by a “Don Stefano,” so you KNOW they’re Italian) is eager to acquire Scatman’s dojo, and their persuasion of “punching him in the face” sort of backfires when his response is to keel over, dead. Ownership then passes to his estranged daughter, Sydney, who quickly shows up for the funeral before revealing her own martial arts skills, kicking the asses of an entire pool hall full of goons. Or as Black Belt Jones’ sidekick recounts in a hilariously contradictory manner: “She is good, man! She is bad!” That’s actual dialog. From there on, it’s up to Black Belt Jones and his foxy mama to team up and take down the mob.
The beer, meanwhile, is not lacking in character, although it may not be quite as cartoonish and over-the-top as the film. Red Brick is Atlanta’s original craft brewer, and not lacking in a wry sense of humor, as one might expect from a brewery that would dedicate a label to a fairly obscure blaxploitation parody. As the name and flavor text would suggest, it’s very chocolate-forward and fairly sweet, with a lactose-like richness and creamy mouthfeel that evoke a latte with chocolate syrup and a thick cap of steamed milk foam. It’s not entirely one-note, however, also hiding some pleasant dark fruitiness on the back end to give it a bit of complexity.
The same cannot be said of the film, which truly is “one-note,” although it’s an easy note to hum and absentmindedly enjoy. Black Belt Jones is a film of simple pleasures, easy to poke fun at for its absurd dialog and poorly choreographed action sequences. None of that is really Kelly’s fault—rather, his real-world physical abilities are on such a different level from all the other actors around him that his interactions with them look all the more awkward because they’re incapable of keeping up. Just look at this quick shot of him throwing the exact same spinning kick four times in a row as henchmen queue up to be the next in line to get booted in the face. Observe the guy at the end of the line, and appreciate the way he just stands there, patiently waiting his turn because nobody directed him to do anything else.
This type of movie wouldn’t be complete without a little casual misogyny, either, and to that end I present the wonderful courtship scene, where Sydney explains that in order to get her, he’ll have to “take it,” but that “my cookie would kill you.” Where would you say the scene likely goes from there? Perhaps a romantic getaway? A swanky love pad? Well, if you guessed “a quick frolic on the beach before smashing a stranger’s guitar for no reason,” then you were significantly closer to the actual outcome. Please leave a note in the comments letting me know if you managed to guess it successfully from the many context clues I sprinkled throughout this piece that were inexorably meant to lead you to the conclusion.
All in all, Black Belt Jones is all in good fun, even when Sydney is threatening people with “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot.” It’s one of the breezier, more easily watchable films I’ve tackled for Of Dreck & Drink, which triggers the same knee-jerk reaction as always: I’ll have to make next month quite a lot more painful to compensate. I do this for you.
If you’re interested in getting down and funky with Jim Kelly and Black Belt Jones, check out the trailer below.
And “if you’re craving satisfaction, Thick Silky is the man who’s got that action,” so check it out.