Anyone who knows me well knows that Bruce Lee movies never get old to me. In one of his films, Lee advises a pupil to fight with “emotional content,” and this phrase is the closest concept that I can use to describe the rawness that I find in his movies which set his work aside from all other martial arts filmography.
His untimely death prompts one to consider the possibilities of what might have been accomplished had he lived longer, but there is one “what if” question in particular that haunts my mind which took place during his lifetime…what if Williams had lived?
Mr. Williams, played by the late martial artist, Jim Kelly, is one of the three protagonists from Lee’s most iconic and culturally significant film Enter the Dragon (1973).
Kelly’s role as Williams was his first major film debut and it led to leading roles as Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai (amongst others), which laid the foundation for later pop culture characters such as Afro Samurai, Bushido Brown, and Black Dynamite.
Williams is the quintessential “soul-brother” that encompasses strength, masculinity, sex appeal, style, socio-political awareness, and adherence to values of justice.
In the film, he is a Vietnam vet and a martial arts instructor at an inner-city dojo that has strong “Black Power” overtones (we later see the Black Power fist on a poster in his room). He has to fight off two racist cops in order to travel to Han’s martial arts tournament, and while observing how others live in the Aberdeen Floating Village in Hong Kong, he utters the poignant line: “ghettoes all over the world are the same…they stink.”
He administers poetic justice in the film’s martial arts tournament to Parsons, a white New Zealander who bullies some of the Chinese civilians, and later fearlessly confronts the antagonist, Mr. Han, one on one, after a false accusation is made against him and he refuses to “out” the real culprit (Lee).
The depth of Williams’ character development complements that of Lee’s, which presents a narrative of a prodigious monk who must find a balance between honor and revenge within the parameters of a Shaolin-based philosophical and spiritual purview.
So back to the question.
Apparently, the original script had Lee and Kelly surviving the events of the film, and to those who know how things actually turned out, that definitely did not happen.
Instead, Kelly is introduced, delivers a truly captivating performance, and is then tragically killed off halfway through the film (and it bothers me that the last scene we have of his character is of him hanging, an all-too-familiar image in the African American cultural consciousness).
Consequently, the film ends with Lee and the third protagonist Mr. Roper, played by John Saxon, surviving the ordeal on Mr. Han’s island.
Long story short, after reading the original script in which Roper was supposed to die, Saxon’s agent gave pushback until the script was changed to have Roper survive and Williams “exit stage left.”
Now, I have not yet come across anything which explicitly ties racism to this compromise, but it is no secret that Hollywood, especially during that time, was highly sensitive to how protagonists of certain demographics would be received by mass audiences, and I’m sure that many would assert that similar sentiments exist even today. My argument is simply that if the execs really wanted to push for the survival of both a Chinese and African American duo, then they easily could have done so at the expense of the death of a white character.
You see, not only would the existence of the Lee/Williams duo have had a major impact on the socio-cultural norms of the time (Enter the Dragon would later be deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry), but it honestly would have made for a better overall film.
Their survival, as a team, would have come into direct conflict with the existing portrayals and attitudes of and towards minorities in the West at the time. And that’s why the “what if Williams had lived?” question haunts me sometimes. I think of the powerful effect that it could have had on a mainstream cultural level. And the fact that it ended up falling into the stereotype of the “black guy dies first” trope, because a white actor complained, angers me both as a fan and as a man of color in this country.
Even Lee, who himself was trying to undo the stereotypes of Asian and Asian American character roles, didn’t live long enough to even see the release of his first Hollywood film, nor its subsequent impact, which hearkens back to my earlier sentiment regarding the additional layer of “what ifs?” to the equation.
Yes, we eventually got the Rush Hour movies down the line, which are steps in the right direction to some degree, but Enter the Dragon was not a comedy, and Lee and Williams were too intense, too principled, and too unrelenting to exist as influential heroes in Hollywood then or even now.
All in all, we’ll just have to live with how things went. The movie is still great despite the exchange of destinies between Williams and Roper. It’s just fascinating to think about, and for that reason, I wanted to share this perhaps little known tidbit of film history.
In the same breath, I also wanted to point out that on a somewhat lighter note, despite the existence of prejudice, racism, close-mindedness, etc., we can still make strides to rectify and combat those notions today. Jim Kelly’s character may not have blossomed fully in the way that I would have liked to see, but his image as Williams became the epitome of cool, and is still appreciated today. If prejudice played a role as I believe it did, it wasn’t able to prevent Kelly’s influence over time, and I’ll accept that as a win, and it gives me hope that negative energies and principles will always be doomed to perish when confronted with the positive ones.