Action movies have a long and storied history with Black stars and Black audiences, and the genre wouldn’t be what it is today without that history. A celebration is perpetually in order.
To build the pantheon of Black action stars, Polygon gathered a group of film critics, academics, authors, and experts to weigh in. Our esteemed panel includes Frankie “Balboa” Diaz, action film critic; Matthew Essary, freelance film critic; Christian Valentin, film reviewer; Lee B. Golden III, Film Combat Syndicate founder and editor; and Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide.
Each of them submitted a list of their 10 favorite Black action stars of all time, with thoughts on their favorites. What follows is the culminating list, with actors in descending order of how often they showed up on those individual lists, a few recommendations on the movies to show off their action bona fides, and the runners-up of Black action stars who were nominated and recognized by our committee. Let’s get kicking.
by Christian Valentin
The master thespian Denzel Washington may not prioritize action as often as others on the list (although did you see that sword fight in The Tragedy of Macbeth?), but when he does focus his talents toward bruising, it’s cinematic gold. Just look at pulp maestro Russell Mulcahy’s 1991 film Ricochet, in which Washington’s charm collides with a villainously unhinged John Lithgow for trashy revenge-thriller chaos. It’s a movie that boasts both a prison sword fight against Jesse Ventura and a bathrobed Washington holding a clown at gunpoint.
Washington would grow from the explosive talent at the front of Cry Freedom, Glory, and Malcolm X into a 10-time Oscar nominee. But he’d also mature into a grade-A ass-kicker. Tony Scott gifted us with four distinctive action variations of the actor: Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 123 embrace the star’s charisma to give us Denzel the vulnerable everyman hero; Deja Vu’s Hitchcockian DEA agent races through a spectacularly destructive and inventive cross-time car chase; and Man on Fire taps into his versatile range to transform burnt-out redemption into Old Testament wrath in his mission to rescue Dakota Fanning.
The Hughes brothers’ Book of Eli and Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House simmer that wrath into calculating menace: the former shaping its machete-wielding wanderer into a uniquely Denzel mold of Leone’s gunslingers and Mad Max’s apocalyptic warrior, the latter utilizing his cool charm as a facade over Bourne-esque spy ruthlessness.
However, with its third and final entry coming later this year, Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer films have surprisingly become the ultimate melding of the action genre with every facet of Denzel’s screen presence.
The warmth of his dramatic roles emerge as his retired badass McCall rights the injustices against those in need. The disarming and unflappable poise of one of his most iconic roles, the intense Training Day detective Alonzo Harris, underlines his standoffs with assassins and gangsters who constantly underestimate the man. Finally, Denzel’s air of consummate professionalism is sharpened into ice-cold mercilessness when his vigilante grim reaper dispatches enemies with the gory brutality of a horror movie slasher. The trailer for the upcoming Equalizer 3 promises a Fuqua-Denzel collaboration that escalates such viciousness to stabbing-a-man-with-a-gun heights.
Recommended movies: Man on Fire (streaming on Max), The Book of Eli (streaming on Hulu), The Equalizer (streaming on Starz, available for digital rental/purchase), Crimson Tide (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Virtuosity (streaming on Prime Video and Paramount Plus), Deja Vu (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Safe House (streaming on Prime Video), Training Day (available for digital rental/purchase)
by Matthew Essary
Skill, influence, longevity, and success — there’s no one defining factor when assessing the “greatest of all time.” Yet it’s hard to dispute the idea that Wesley Snipes is at the top of the mountain when discussing Black action stars. In the numerous films he has made in the genre throughout his nearly 40-year career, Snipes, with his multiple black belts in the disciplines of hapkido and shotokan karate, has shown a commitment to physicality paired with legitimate dramatic and comedic chops that give him an advantage over expert martial artists who later went on to be screen stars.
Where Snipes truly separates himself from the pack is more intangible. He brings an effortlessly cool swagger to his characters that allows him to stand toe-to-toe with the greats of the genre, despite having a wildly uneven filmography that spans everything from A-list blockbusters to barely remembered direct-to-video releases. This star quality is immediately apparent in his first leading action role, the Die Hard-esque Passenger 57, where he squares off with a plane hijacker played by B-movie stalwart Bruce Payne. Snipes’ smooth confidence never edges too far into “tough guy” bravado, even though the outcome will inevitably see a hero stylishly taking down scenery-devouring bad guys with a few well-placed kicks and one-liners. It’s a lean, entertaining effort that properly announced Snipes’ arrival onto the action scene.
If Passenger 57 was his action calling card, 2002’s Undisputed was proof positive of his dramatic chops. The hybrid genre tale, from cult-favorite filmmaker Walter Hill (The Warriors), finds the heavyweight boxing champion of the world (Ving Rhames) sentenced to a prison stay at a maximum-security location with an underground boxing circuit supported by illegal gambling. Its champion is a soft-spoken lifer, played by Snipes, who quickly comes into conflict with the brash new arrival. Undisputed, while not a success during its theatrical run, became a sizable-enough hit on home video to spawn four loosely related sequels that helped jump-start the careers of other notable action headliners Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, and Michael Jai White.
But when it comes to legacy, we have to note 1998’s Blade, arguably the strongest film on his action resume and the true beginning of an era where comic book characters were viable movie leads. There is no Spider-Man or X-Men or “Marvel Cinematic Universe” without Snipes’ Blade. The movie itself is an achievement, full of memorable moments (the opening “blood rave” scene is an all-time great melding of music, staging, and effects work), dialogue (ice skating uphill!), and top-notch action choreography that was head and shoulders above the majority of on-screen fight work coming out of Hollywood at the time. And at the center of it all is Snipes’ physicality. Even now, 25 years later, many fans still clamor to see Snipes don the character’s trademark shades and trench coat one more time rather than see a new actor take up the mantle. They know what anyone who has spent time delving into his films does: Wesley Snipes is a one-of-a-kind talent that can’t be replaced.
Recommended movies: Passenger 57 (available for digital rental/purchase), Undisputed (available for digital rental/purchase), Blade (available for digital rental/purchase), Boiling Point (streaming on Hoopla with a library card, available for digital rental/purchase), Rising Sun (streaming on Max), Demolition Man (streaming on Max), Game of Death (available for digital rental/purchase)
Michael Jai White
by Frankie “Balboa” Diaz
With a film career spanning more than three decades as an actor, director, writer, and martial artist, Michael Jai White has cemented himself as one of the top action stars and Black martial artists in the genre today. Studying martial arts since a young age, White learned a myriad of styles over the years, including shotokan karate, goju-ryu karate, taekwondo, wushu, kyokushin (under the legendary master Shigeru Oyama), tang soo do, boxing, and jujutsu, with eight black belts to his name and earning the title of “The Mantle of the Black Dragon” in 2019 at the Urban Action Film Showcase from the Black Dragon himself, Ron van Clief.
With his versatility and range, it was no surprise why White was chosen for films like HBO’s biopic Tyson and Spawn, an adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s mega-popular comic book franchise and the first major superhero movie starring a Black lead. In 1999, action fans saw what White could truly do as a martial artist on film in Mic Rodgers’ sequel Universal Soldier: The Return, in which he stars alongside legendary action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Considering his size and frame (6-foot-1 and solidly built), his sharp kicks, speed, and agility were a true surprise.
During the 2000s, White’s career picked up more momentum in film and television, as he starred alongside film industry veterans like Danny Glover (Freedom Song), Steven Seagal (Exit Wounds), and newly minted Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh in the 2004 Hong Kong film Silver Hawk. But it was 2006 when MJW gave us an all-time classic, a film many consider one of his best: Isaac Florentine’s Undisputed 2. The film showcases many different martial arts styles, and a fight for the ages with Scott Adkins.
In 2009, White blessed cinema and genre fans with one of his passion projects, Black Dynamite, a Blaxploitation comedy that he wrote and stars in. Here we got to see his humorous side as an actor, and the film was a hit with critics and fans. In that same year, he gave martial arts fans another classic in Blood and Bone.
In 2011, White directed his first film, Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown, then took on the follow-up, Never Back Down: No Surrender. Next up: The Outlaw Johnny Black, a spiritual sequel to Black Dynamite, set to come out later this year. With a strong filmography and more upcoming projects, there is no slowing White down. Who knows what else he has in store for us in an already legendary career?
Recommended movies: Blood and Bone (streaming for free with ads on Crackle), Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing (available for digital rental/purchase), Black Dynamite (streaming on Prime Video, Hulu, and for free with ads on Tubi), Spawn (available for digital rental/purchase), Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown (available for digital rental/purchase), Falcon Rising (streaming on Prime Video and Peacock, or for free with ads on Tubi and Crackle)
by Josiah Howard
Fred Williamson is Blaxploitation’s premier male film star. While Shaft made Richard Roundtree a household name, Fred Williamson’s roles in front of and behind the camera make him a Black cinema touchstone.
Director Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar (1973) was an African American take on the gangster classic White Heat (1949). Coming off his hit Hammer, the film plugged Williamson into high-action fighting sequences and fully defined his movie star charisma. Cohen’s use of Harlem locations and man-on-the-street photography adds a naturalness and realism that can’t be bought, and the downbeat final act was in tandem with other popular anti-establishment pictures of the day. On screen, Williamson is at his most confident: Yes, he’s got the goods, but more importantly, it’s clear that he knows it — and he’s enjoying himself! Black Caesar — so popular with audiences that it garnered a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem also in 1973 — is a must-see picture.
1972’s The Legend of Nigger Charley, even with its controversial title intact, is an important film for Williamson as well as the movie industry. The actor brought Black audiences the rare and welcome story of a Black cowboy, an image and idea, not in the forefront of any young person’s mind in the 1970s. Its singular peek at the experiences, contributions, and images of African Americans in America’s dusty Midwest were both a shock to the system and a cause for celebration.
In the film Williamson is Charley, an on-the-run former slave who killed his sadistic master. His trials and travails include ambushes, double-crosses, and unexpected romance. A hit with audiences, The Legend of Nigger Charley was followed in 1973 by a quick-to-market sequel: The Soul of Nigger Charley. Proof of its influence was the flux of like-themed Black-in-the-West pictures, like 1974’s Thomasine & Bushrod and 1976’s Adiós Amigo.
By 1973, Williamson was a proven star, and Warner Bros. Pictures fashioned the globe-trotting James Bond-inspired That Man Bolt just for him. His character, Jefferson Bolt (even his name is bougie!), was a private detective that traveled internationally to solve cases. An expert at karate, of course, and a favorite of the ladies (“Mr. Chocolate” to those in the know), he was someone audiences wanted to see win. And he did. Williamson’s appropriateness as a contemporary Black film star is on vivid display: He’s both the knowing dude from the ghetto streets and an erudite, skilled, and highly intelligent person who needs no help from anyone.
Conceived as the first of three Bolt films, even with its A-list, general-audience poster art and obvious franchise-ready concept, inner-city Black audiences preferred films in which their heroes triumphed in America’s urban Black centers. Only one Bolt film was made, making this a special attraction. It even features the delightful Teresa (“Get Christie Love!”) Graves as his love interest. Not to be missed. Almost none of Williamson’s films are.
Recommended movies: Black Caesar (streaming for free with ads on Pluto TV), The Legend of Nigger Charley (streaming for free with a library card on Kanopy), Black Eye (available for digital rental/purchase), Mean Johnny Barrows (streaming for free with ads on Tubi)
by Matthew Essary
Jim Kelly was the perfect action star for the 1970s. He arrived fully formed in Enter the Dragon, a confidently cool karate practitioner dressed immaculately, sporting an iconic spherical afro and bold mutton-chop sideburns. He was the epitome of ’70s hip. A late addition to the cast, it was only Kelly’s second film and first major role. But despite playing third fiddle to Bruce Lee, and with far less screen time and narrative importance than his paunchy Caucasian co-star John Saxon, Kelly still delivered one of the defining characters of the genre. He stood tall on a stage next to the greatest martial arts star of all time and gave Black audiences, who were already deeply invested in the kung fu film scene, a hero that represented their struggles. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not hard to imagine how electric it must have been to witness scenes of Kelly taking down racist cops projected in crowded inner-city movie houses, with raucous audiences who were dealing with the harsh realities of a racially unfair system every day in their real lives.
Enter the Dragon was, by any measure, a huge success for Warner Bros. Pictures. The studio quickly reunited Jim Kelly with the film’s director, Robert Clouse, for Black Belt Jones. A much lighter and lower-stakes affair than the earlier Bruce Lee-led classic, Kelly goes up against the mafia in order to protect his old friend’s (played by Scatman Crothers!) karate school. The film is entertaining as it teeters on the edge of full-blown camp; the final fight has Kelly, wearing nothing but gym shorts, decimating mob thugs outside a car wash. The scene could only exist unironically in the 1970s.
1974’s Three the Hard Way is an undisputed classic of Blaxploitation. An all-star team-up between Kelly, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and NFL legend Jim Brown (Slaughter) has the three action stars thwarting a racist plot to secretly poison the Black population of America through the country’s water supply. With legendary stuntman Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit) behind all the action, there are never more than a few minutes that go by without a gun being fired, a kick being thrown, or a car chase ending in spectacular vehicular destruction. It culminates in the trio waging an all-out assault on a neo-Nazi compound that will have any genre fan grinning from ear to ear as scores of Nazis are burned, blown away, and beaten down.
Unfortunately, Jim Kelly’s time as an action lead peaked with that three-picture run. The films that came after weren’t nearly as successful, financially or creatively. By the beginning of the 1980s, he had gone into semi-retirement to pursue other interests. It’s appropriate, in a way. By doing so, he ensured his cinematic persona would always be linked to the decade that birthed it — an eternal symbol of 1970s cool, waiting to be discovered by new generations of martial arts enthusiasts for years to come.
Recommended movies: Enter the Dragon (streaming on Max), Black Belt Jones (available for digital rental/purchase), Three the Hard Way (not currently available to legally stream)
by Josiah Howard
Before she became a name-above-the-title action hero, Pam Grier was a notable presence in several early 1970s women-in-prison films, including the unapologetically titled Women in Cages (1971). The Big Doll House, released the same year, marked a turning point for Grier in that it showcased what she brought to cinema: a beautiful look, a welcome naturalness, and a palpable determination.
Feminism, too, was a prominent component of Pam Grier’s screen persona. In The Big Doll House she plays “Grear,” an opportunistic but equally pragmatic lesbian: “I’m not this way because I want to be… It’s this place!” Violent shenanigans provide the centerpiece for a lascivious, flesh-happy endeavor.
Double crosses, catfights, women taking back their power, and that infamous mud fight are all eye-popping components. The absolute best of the ’70s women-in-prison pictures, The Big Doll House was followed the next year by the like-titled The Big Bird Cage. Note: Pam Grier even sings the picture’s theme song, “Long Time Woman.”
Coffy (1973) is the film that delivered Pam Grier to super stardom. Coffy was a nurse by day and a vigilante murderess by night, out to investigate and avenge her invalid sister’s coma-like incapacitation, a condition brought on by her getting “hooked on dope.” Coffy does anything, including posing as a prostitute and committing several unseemly and gory murders, to solve the mystery — and get him!
Alongside the established best-of-Blaxploitation entries like Cleopatra Jones (1973), TNT Jackson (1974), and Velvet Smooth (1976), Coffy, with its voluminous nudity, razor blade fights, intravenous drug use, corrupt politicians, torture, and betrayal, is an illicit smorgasbord — a one-stop exploitation cinema treatise. “No one could have done that role but Pam,” writer-director Jack Hill confessed in an interview for Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. “I wrote it with her in mind and she made that picture her own.” Indeed!
1974’s Foxy Brown, originally planned as a sequel to Coffy entitled Burn, Coffy, Burn, is more colorful, outrageous, and willing to play for hoots and hollers. With plenty of cat fights and big wigs (Pam insisted!), Foxy Brown is a teen-fantasy party pleaser that presents Grier as she wanted to be presented: violent and unpredictable, but still dressed in the latest fashions! The final comeuppance at the film’s conclusion is a grisly surprise that had audiences cheering — and is still discussed amongst the exploitation cinema crowd.
1997’s Jackie Brown, released more than two decades after Foxy Brown, brought the magic of Pam Grier to a whole new generation. Quentin Tarantino wrote the film specifically for her — cementing her place as both a trendsetting African American female performer from the past, as well as a beloved, continuing entertainment industry commodity. (Additionally, rapper Foxy Brown took the 1974’s film title and made it her stage name!)
Recommended movies: The Big Doll House (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Coffy (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Foxy Brown (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Jackie Brown (available for digital rental/purchase), Black Mama White Mama (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Scream Blacula Scream (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), The Arena (streaming for free with ads on Tubi)
by Christian Valentin
Transitioning from the NFL to early roles in Blaxploitation films Bucktown and Friday Foster to exuding flag-draped champion hubris as Apollo Creed opposite the Italian Stallion in Rocky, Carl Weathers began his film career already oozing personality. His burly intensity and distinct baritone voice was made for larger-than-life characters and heroics. It’s unsurprising his filmography throughout the 1970s and ’80s placed him opposite some of the decades’ coolest or toughest faces in the genre: Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw in WWII adventure sequel Force 10 From Navarone; Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin in the proto-First Blood Yukon-set thriller Death Hunt; and clasping titanic arms with Arnold Schwarzenegger for cinema’s ultimate handshake in action-sci-fi-horror classic Predator.
However, there’s no better showcase of Weathers’ action superstardom than Action Jackson. Before the current era dominated by John Wick and the stuntperson-to-director pipeline, stuntman Craig R. Baxley hinged a moviemaking career on the broad shoulders of Weathers.
A parodic riff on the Blaxploitation formula that brought the actor into Hollywood, the plot of Action Jackson amplifies the genre’s socially conscious conflict — here involving smug asshole businessman Craig T. Nelson taking control of the Detroit auto union — into outrageous city-wrecking mayhem complete with ninja mercenaries. Carl Weathers as the titular cowboy hero-cop got the cheesy self-aware skewering of ’80s action, and Baxley returned the favor, celebrating the actor’s physicality and charisma with gusto. Watch him run as fast as a speeding car to chase down escaping bad guys! Watch him fling a man so hard out a window that he flies across the street through another window! Watch him save the day by driving a Ferrari directly into an upstairs bedroom to make a hero’s entrance! Quips like “How do you like your ribs?” (before roasting the unlucky goon with a flamethrower) sound like the most awesome one-liners ever when uttered via Weathers’ rich bass delivery.
A full-fledged leading action career for Weathers never materialized in the film’s wake; despite box-office success, poor critical reception would led to an in-name-only TV sequel in 1990. Yet Carl Weathers’ position as a genre icon is indisputable: cemented in pop culture through Rocky, Toy Story, and The Mandalorian, canonized via the back-to-back macho overloads of Predator and Action Jackson. —CV
Recommended movies: Rocky III (streaming on Netflix and Prime Video), Predator (streaming on Max), Action Jackson (available for digital rental/purchase)
by Matthew Essary
Billy Blanks’ name justifiably conjures images of an energetic fitness instructor leading a martial arts aerobic class in a late-night infomercial slot. Hardcore action fans, though, have long known Blanks as more than just the smiling face of the highly successful (and meme-able) Tae Bo workout system. He is one of the unsung heroes of the direct-to-video action boom of the ’90s that saw rental store bottom shelves jam-packed with movies promising an amazing ratio of thrills to dollars spent.
DTV action films of the era often featured accomplished martial artists because, at the time, it helped add the value of intense kinetic action while keeping production costs low. There were few better martial artists in that crowded field than Billy Blanks. His superhero-esque physique concealed surprising agility and crisp on-screen fighting skills that were evident from his early starring vehicles, like 1990’s The King of the Kickboxers. This Hong Kong/U.S. production places Blanks in the villain role as a fighter who stars in black-market kung fu films where the battles are deadly real. It’s not a subtle film and the language barrier between the filmmakers and stars resulted in performances where the descriptor “absurd” is underselling it. Blanks is all sweaty, bug-eyed intensity as the film’s major threat. But when the time comes, he displays an unmatched physical charisma as he leaps, kicks, and growls his way through the many blisteringly intense and intricate fight scenes.
The King of the Kickboxers is a wonky movie but a stellar demonstration of why the Hong Kong action style is so revered, and Blanks is integral to that success. His performance is so memorable, in fact, that it directly led to the creation of the classic Street Fighter video game character Dee Jay.
It wasn’t long before filmmakers discovered the infectiously positive attitude Blanks would eventually use to build and brand his fitness empire. Talons of the Eagle paired him with DTV martial arts veteran Jalal Merhi (the Tiger Claws trilogy) to play an undercover cop looking to bust up a crime syndicate led by immortal character-actor James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China) and perennial low-budget movie villain Matthias Hues (I Come in Peace). It’s a lo-fi “mismatched partners” action romp filled with gratuitous car chases, ninjas, banter, and kung fu training montages all held together by a bunch of actors who are clearly having a good time, with Blanks front and center as the star of the show.
Showdown is the film that strikes the best balance between the two clear halves of Billy Blanks as a performer — the phenomenally smooth martial artist and the naturally charming but awkward actor. Here he plays a high school janitor who becomes the muscle-bound Miyagi to a kid who is being bullied by a group of teens, who also happen to participate in an illegal, after-school kumite for cash. It walks a fine line between homage and straight-up parody of the Karate Kid franchise’s tropes and structure, but Blanks plays it all straight with earnest, encouraging warmth, making the entire movie work almost single-handedly. He found the majority of his success in another field, but looking at these three films makes it clear: Billy Blanks was criminally underrated in his heyday as an action star and is worthy of inclusion among the greats.
Recommended movies: The King of the Kickboxers (available to watch on YouTube), Talons of the Eagle (available to watch on YouTube), Showdown (available to stream on Peacock or for free with ads on Tubi and Crackle)
by Josiah Howard
Jim Brown became an action star years before Blaxploitation cinema’s heyday. The former athlete was a favorite “angry Black man” supporting player in a slew of incendiary 1960s films, like Riot, 100 Rifles, and Tick, Tick, Tick. But it was 1972’s Slaughter, a visual compendium of everything he had done before on screen, that made him a superstar.
In Slaughter, Brown plays a former army captain out to avenge the mob hit of his father. In the film, Brown shows off both his fighting skills and his remarkable physique (Stella Stevens, too, is photographed by an adoring camera). Slaughter has the perfect clothes, the perfect car, and the perfect ladies. The Chicago Daily Sentinel said it best: “Brown is a black Superman with a discernible link to the brother in the ghetto.” If further proof be needed, a sequel, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, entertained audiences the following year. A high point for Jim Brown, Slaughter is must-see film, and one of very few Blaxploitation films photographed in the glamorous Todd-AO widescreen process.
Black Gunn hit theaters the same year as Slaughter and continued Hollywood’s game plan for Brown: to bring him back bigger than he was before. The lush production presented him as a tough guy nightclub owner who joins forces with a Black Panther-like group of militants called BAG (Black Action Group), all trying their best to outsmart the mob. It’s splendid viewing, Brown giving the audience what it came to see — and residing in a rock star mansion! Black Gunn, like so many other Blaxploitation films, offers the essential vicarious thrills, babes, cars, and threads. Sometimes teenage dreams do come true!
The Slams (1973, third starring Jim Brown vehicle released within 12 months!) remains an under-traveled favorite. In the film Brown plays Curtis Hook, a thief who stashes $1.5 million before going to jail. While in jail he has to fend for himself; of course, knock-down drag-out fights are front and center, but he also has to find a way to get out of “the Slams” before the building he hid the loot in is demolished.
A clever star vehicle, The Slams is also a film that allows us access to one of America’s busiest penal institutions: LA’s Lincoln Heights Jail. The realism quotient is high here; so is the requisite long-suffering beautiful girlfriend, Iris (Judy Pace). Superb: a quick 91 minutes of jail-bound escapades.
Recommended movies: Slaughter (available for digital rental/purchase), Black Gunn (streaming on Prime Video or for free with ads on Tubi), The Slams (available for digital rental/purchase), I Escaped From Devil’s Island (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Three the Hard Way (not currently available to legally stream), The Dirty Dozen (available for digital rental/purchase), Fingers (not currently available to legally stream)
by Lee B. Golden
The ’70s kung fu craze paved the way for dozens of actors and potential stars to find their footing around the world. That list would ultimately include the name Carl Scott, whose nascency in the field working as an extra in films would one day see him catching the eye of Hong Kong film producer Ng See-yuen.
As told in an interview with Malcolm Jordan in 2021, Scott studied through his military uncle with training origins in Japanese martial arts. He would go on to appear subtly in the dojo scene with Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon, before appearing in at least four more films, from Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth in 1976 to Kung Fu Executioner in 1981. In the years that followed, Scott turned to martial arts competitions to take care of his family, nary seen in the public eye and with no movement in film and television despite this being one of his goals in the U.S. at the time.
Scott’s films would ultimately become obscure over the years, remaining alive only in their circulation throughout the home video and bootleg markets. For this, there’s a lot that continues to be said, deservedly, about the lasting appeal to these films, as well as the cultural and social influence of martial arts cinema between Black and Asian communities the world around, particularly in the U.S., where racism and economic inequality remain so topical. For more on that, watch one of the recent great martial arts cinema docs, 2019’s Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, which is currently available to rent or buy on Prime Video.
Recommended movies: Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Sun Dragon (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), Kung Fu Executioner (streaming for free with ads on Freevee)
by Lee B. Golden
Follow certain circles of independent action cinema fandom and you’re bound to come across the name Robert Samuels, whose career successes stemming from his heyday as a trailblazing stuntman now see him as an independently established and growing content creator and filmmaker.
My first exposure to Samuels was in a blind DVD purchase of Hong Kong action adventure The Red Wolf. Basically Die Hard on a boat, he plays the drum kit-shredding member of an elite team of terrorists who’ve taken a luxury cruiser hostage, setting the stage for action-packed heroics led by stars Kenny Ho and Christy Chung. On that DVD, Samuels was featured in an interview reflecting on his tenure as an employee for U.S. Airways, taking three annual vacations to Hong Kong to shoot his shot in the movie business until finding a manager, albeit briefly, in actor Chiu Chi-ling.
By the third trip, Samuels crossed paths with martial arts legends Chen Kuan-tai and the venerable Sammo Hung. The latter would go on to be the deciding factor in Samuels’ induction as the first African American member of the Hong Kong Stuntman Association. The papers Samuels needed to officiate his membership in the HKSA needed signatures from at least three action directors, and after successfully filming several takes for a key stunt sequence in Sammo Hung’s 1995 movie Don’t Give a Damn, Samuels successfully acquired four endorsements, with fellow Red Wolf cohort Cho Wing providing Samuels a monumental one-up.
Surprisingly, Samuels’ career in Hong Kong would take a backseat while the actor, stunt performer, and film multi-hyphenate would go on to work the music video scene and transition to other independent projects with partners in the U.S. His Hong Kong film credits are physical media rarities nowadays, so if you can find a legit DVD retailer selling copies of films like Fatal Bet, The Gambling Ghost, Don’t Give a Damn, and/or The Red Wolf, make sure to snag them.
Recommended movies: Made in Chinatown (streaming on Prime, Peacock, and for free with ads on Tubi), My Asian Auntie (streaming on YouTube), his award-winning and hard-hitting action shorts at the official YouTube channel for Deviant Children Productions and R4 Films, LLC
Ron Van Clief
by Frankie “Balboa” Diaz
Ron Van Clief’s life could be a movie someday. After serving in the Marines in the 1960s, he learned martial arts from pioneers like Peter Urban (founder of American GōJū Ryū Karate Do), Frank Ruiz (founder of Nisei Goju-Ryu), and one of the most notable figures in Black martial arts in America, Moses Powell. His story is the stuff of legends, as a five-time karate/kung fu champion and 15-time All-American champion (winning his last at the age of 60). To this day, he remains the oldest fighter to compete in the UFC, at the age of 50.
Being inspired to become a movie star after his viewing of the classic Shaw brothers film The Boxer From Shantung, Ron Van Clief auditioned for a martial arts film co-produced by Serafim Karalexis and Yangtze Films. Over 200 people auditioned for the role, and Van Clief got it. It’s easy to see why: He was proficient in various martial arts styles and built like he could crush bricks with his bare hands, as mentioned in the book These Fists Break Bricks by Chris Poggiali and Grady Hendrix.
The kung fu film craze started dying out fast with mainstream audiences in the middle of 1973 after Bruce Lee’s death, but per These Fists Break Bricks, Karalexis wanted to capitalize on interest in the genre from minority communities after Jim Kelly’s breakout performance in the 1973’s Enter the Dragon. After an eight-week shoot in Hong Kong, he returned with the film, at the time titled “Tough Guy.” Due to some legal matters, Karalexis couldn’t be in Hong Kong for the shoot, and his partner in the project, Yeo Ban-Yee, wanted a Chinese hero (played by Jason Pai Piao) to appeal to Chinese audiences. The end result is the film only contains 14 minutes of Van Clief out of its 90-minute run time. The action was good, and it has plenty of it, so Karalexis without hesitation retitled the film to The Black Dragon and put Van Clief as top billing in all forms of advertising.
The Black Dragon was a success, and Van Clief signed up to do three more films. While his filmography is not as deep as others (and to some, not good), it is very special, during a time when the genre was declining with mainstream audiences, to see the effort put in to produce these martial arts films, especially with a Black martial artist. Ron Van Clief still trains at the age of 80 as of this writing, and taught many notable people, like Taimak from Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, a movie where Van Clief did the action choreography.
Recommended movies: The Black Dragon (streaming for free with ads on Tubi), The Black Dragon’s Revenge (streaming for free with ads on Pluto TV), The Squeeze (streaming for free with ads on Tubi)
by Christian Valentin
Launching his career with a 1960 Broadway debut in A Raisin in the Sun, Robert Hooks’ accolades lean far more toward theater, television, and activism than cinema. Alongside Tony nominations, Emmy awards. and induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and in addition to his landmark role as Det. Jeff Ward in N.Y.P.D. — television dramas’ first African American lead — Hooks’ contributions to opening up acting and arts careers to disadvantaged youth looms even greater, including his various roles in forming or leading groups such as The Group Theatre Workshop, Black Academy of Arts and Letters, The D.C. Black Repertory Company, and Arts in Action.
Some movie-watchers may recognize Hooks as Admiral Morrow in The Search for Spock or a brief supporting appearance with Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, yet as far as action goes, there’s only one role to consider — but it’s monumental enough to put him in the pantheon: Mr. T in Trouble Man.
Ostensibly crafted in the image of the previous year’s smash hit Shaft — even opening to the tunes of Marvin Gaye, who wrote the movie’s soundtrack — Ivan Dixon’s 1972 film assuredly delivers a composed and sleek noir thriller that trades exploitation verve for subdued cool. Dixon stages cunning conversations and bloody shootouts with equal thrill, but it all hinges on Hooks. His suave “fixer” Mr. T mesmerizes with an own-the-room performance so steely, calculating, and cool that his single action role feels immediately iconic among the genre. Out-maneuvering a frame-up and brewing gang war, his charming, composed, and capable professional makes for a riveting hero who defeats underworld foes with effortless three-steps-ahead astuteness and silver-tongued wits. (Just beware when he dons black leather gloves; Mr. T isn’t afraid to get bloody, either.) Dixon’s next film would be the incendiary masterpiece The Spook Who Sat By the Door and Robert Hooks’ next film role would be in the TV action movie Trapped; both should be better known for Trouble Man’s captivating neo-noir style.
Recommended movies: Trouble Man (streaming on Fubo TV, available to watch on YouTube), as well as supporting roles in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (streaming on Paramount Plus) and Posse (streaming for free with ads on Pluto TV)
Others Black action stars nominated by the panel: Richard Roundtree, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Dwayne Johnson, Laurence Fishburne, Omar Sy, Lateef Crowder, Lashana Lynch, Ron O’Neal, Sope Dirisu, Michael Woods, Tamara Dobson, Joey Ansah, Steve James, Samuel L. Jackson, Rudy Ray Moore, Ving Rhames, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins