This New Documentary on Martial Arts Legend Bruce Lee Sheds Light on Racism in Hollywood
It is not often that Shannon Lee’s identity gets clocked when she is out and about. “Occasionally someone recognises me, but that happens very rarely. I’m not very recognisable.”
This comment is not entirely surprising coming from the only daughter of the world’s most famous martial artist, and herself an actress and producer, but one who, until the release of a new documentary about her father, had more often appeared behind the scenes. It sometimes happens that postal workers, neighbours or even airport security agents point at the Bruce Lee T-shirt she often wears, and smile without realising that they are passing by his daughter.
“People are like, ‘Bruce Lee, yeah, that’s awesome!’ It’s an uplifting, happy and enthusiastic response,” she says.
Bruce Lee was the Hong Kong-American martial arts legend who changed Hollywood’s perception of Asians while also stirring a worldwide craze for kung fu that echoed long after his untimely demise in 1973 at the age of 32, leaving behind his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and two young children. But nearly five decades later, his daughter, wearing a dark purple T-shirt printed with the face of her father during a video call from her Los Angeles home, says that people are only now beginning to recognise that his fame and popularity overshadowed a more shocking truth about exploitation and ingrained racism not only in Hollywood, but also the rest of the US.
Even in the recent example of 2019’s Oscar-winning Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Lee was disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s stereotyped portrayal of her father as an arrogant blowhard, compounded by the fact he was portrayed by Korean-American actor Mike Moh instead of a Chinese star. It was yet another reminder of a lingering cultural blindspot, in which Asians are interchangeable and Bruce Lee’s martial arts school of thought is presented as superfluous, smug and, in this case, no match against Brad Pitt’s all-American brawn.
For Shannon, preserving her father’s legacy means shedding light on inaccurate representations of Asians in Hollywood and following her father’s footsteps to promote a more inclusive world. “Prior to [Bruce Lee], the picture of Asians in the West was quiet, hardworking, subservient,” she says. “I don’t think anyone looked at Asians as full humans that come in every variety under the sun, just like everybody else, because there was no representation of that.”
Bruce Lee fought against racism in his movies, often explicitly, and the cultish fandom surrounding his career hasn’t diminished over the years. His philosophy and martial arts continue to resonate with many around the world, including Vietnamese-American director Bao Minh Nguyen, whose latest documentary, Be Water, is named after Lee’s famous “be water” speech in 1971, and examines Lee’s personal life and struggles in Hollywood as an Asian actor, offering a rare degree of insight compared to previous documentaries made about his fleeting but storied life.
“Bruce Lee’s story has been talked about in terms of his legacy and impact, but not [about] him as a human being,” says Nguyen, also via video call.
More than just a movie by a fan
Be Water premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year, and on ESPN in June. The project was conceived five years ago after Nguyen premiered his last film Live From New York!, a chronicle of Saturday Night Live’s 40-year history and influence on American popular culture. That’s when the director met Shannon, who had been invited to the Los Angeles premiere through a mutual friend. As a filmmaker who loves turning his lens to iconic figures, Nguyen instantly knew that his next project would be dedicated to his own lifelong hero, Bruce Lee.
In its depth and careful handling of the subjects it raises, Be Water proves more than just another love letter from an adoring fan. It was released as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, which examines different social issues through the prism of celebrities’ lives. “I used Bruce Lee as a vessel to talk about a lot of things that happened to Asian-Americans when they first came to the shores of America. ESPN reaches so many people and I wanted a new and wider audience to learn about being an Asian-American,” Nguyen says.
Hong Kong features widely in the documentary. “Hong Kong really formed Bruce Lee’s identity in terms of inclusiveness,” says Nguyen. “Early on in his life, people said that he was treated a little differently because his mom had some European blood. Those experiences made him understand [why] we shouldn’t treat people differently based on where they come from or what they look like.”
In order to understand the city that fundamentally shaped Lee’s outlook on multiculturalism and peer behind the Hollywood billboards, Nguyen and his team spent more time in Hong Kong than anywhere else. “It was really important for me to talk to the people who knew him personally, and not so much those who might have met him once or twice or were impacted after his death. This meant going to the cities that he lived in, especially Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Seattle and Oakland, and tracing his footsteps through America and Hong Kong’s histories.”
The filmmaker’s parents were refugees who left Vietnam in the late 1970s due to the war. “[My parents] were out at sea for two weeks and then landed in Hong Kong, where they lived in a refugee camp before coming to America,” he recalls. “I saw similarities in my parents’ and Bruce Lee’s stories: he left Hong Kong without much money in his pockets and didn’t have many connections in America. So, I wanted to make sure that that was one of the main plots and the heart of the story: the idea of someone coming to a new country looking to succeed.”
I wanted to make sure that that was one of the main plots and the heart of the story: the idea of someone coming to a new country looking to succeed.
—Bao Minh Nguyen
Lee as a college student in Seattle (Image: Bruce Lee Family Archive)
Lee in the US (Image: Bruce Lee Family Archive)
“Bruce Lee is always seen as a very confident model of Asian masculinity,” Nguyen continues. The son of famed Cantonese opera singer Lee Hoi Chuen, Lee trained under wing chun martial arts grandmaster Ip Man. After defeating San Francisco-based kung fu instructor Wong Jack Man in 1964, he went on to develop Jeet Kune Do, a discipline that emphasises the flexible use of various styles according to what is the simplest and most effective for the practitioner in real combat. This philosophy was articulated by Lee in a famous television interview, on The Pierre Berton Show in the US: “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”
Using martial arts to connect people
Against the gun-toting cowboys and inelegant fisticuffs of American cinema, Lee’s measured violence underpinned with sincere mantras and whip-fast deployment of weapons like nunchaku (“nunchucks”) mesmerised audiences. “He is in a league of his own,” comments one fan, originally filmed in the 1970s, in a Be Water clip. Lee’s foray into acting came after producer William Dozier spotted Lee at a karate exhibition in 1964, eventually leading to a casting in the television show The Green Hornet, as Kato, the sidekick to Van Williams’ titular hero.
Lee saw martial arts as a way of bringing people together across races. His students at the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, his martial arts school in the US, came from diverse backgrounds, including Polish-French film director Roman Polański, African-American basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Filipino-American martial arts instructor Dan Inosanto, and US actors Steve Mc-Queen and James Coburn.
“He tried to emphasise realism in the movements,” Shannon explains. “He didn’t love the Chinese kung fu flicks (in the 1960s) where people were flying through the air and sort of having all these magical superhuman qualities, or the long, choreographed fight scenes that went on for 15 minutes where people are getting punched and kicked and nobody’s falling down.” These films didn’t really represent what he understood to be martial arts. He wanted to show the real power of the martial arts, their beauty and quickness which, in his own words in the Pierre Berton interview, represent “the true Oriental”.
His vision of inclusiveness stemmed from his experience of being discriminated against by his British schoolmates in Hong Kong. However, instead of shying away, Lee stood up. “He was a bit of a troublemaker,” his daughter reveals. “He would get in scrapes with other kids and get bullied and beaten up. At some point, he decided he needed to know how to defend himself.” That was why he started training with Ip Man at the age of 13.
From the 1950s to 1970s in Hollywood, Asian characters in film and television were often played by white actors, and their roles were typically relegated to servants, villains or caricatures to ridicule. “My father was up against a difficult system that was not willing to put money behind an Asian as a lead in any way, and not willing to create authentic Asian characters,” says Shannon. Mickey Rooney’s infamously offensive portrayal of a Japanese photographer in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is perhaps the most egregious example and one that Lee describes as “horrible” and which “mortified” her father. “One of his primary goals was to have a true and authentic representation of an Asian in western cinema.”
In The Green Hornet, Lee’s face was masked and he had no speaking lines until he wrote to Dozier asking for dialogue. He also only earned US$400, compared to his co-stars Williams and Wende Wagner, who received US$2,000 and US$850 respectively. In his battle to widen Hollywood’s perspective on Asia, Lee would write and pitch a TV show about a Buddhist monk. “But he was told, ‘A Chinese actor’s accent will be hard for people to understand,’” says his daughter. The project was scrapped, and the lead role of a similar 1970s show, Kung Fu, for which Bruce Lee auditioned, was given to the white actor David Carradine in the end. Speaking to Pierre Burton at the time, Lee was characteristically measured: “They think that business-wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there."
Opportunities came from Asia instead: Lee signed contracts with Golden Harvest and Shaw Studios in Hong Kong, where The Green Hornet had forged him as a nascent star, and where he made his name for years starring in martial arts films and eventually formed his own company, Concord Productions, to release films including The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972) and The Game of Death (1978), the last of which the actor didn’t finish before his death due to an allergic reaction to painkillers.
In Enter the Dragon (1973), Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist who avenges his sister, a fellow practitioner who refuses to succumb to the villain’s sexual advances and stabs herself after failing to fight her way out of an endless swarm of enemies. In Fist of Fury, Lee is a Chinese martial arts apprentice who breaks a tablet with the slogan “Sick Men of East Asia”, a “gift” from a Japanese ambassador as an act of humiliation.
“He was the first to be not just the star, but this powerful, masculine representation of a Chinese man that I don’t think anyone had ever seen before in the West, and so it was a revelation,” Lee’s daughter says. “He didn’t believe in violence just for violence’s sake. He always wanted a reason that his characters had to stand up and fight, and sometimes he even had his characters try to defuse a situation rather than fight. And that was how he was as a human being in real life, too.”
Lee’s films resonated with Chinese viewers, who were tired of colonial-era stigma that spilled over into film. Film producer Andre Morgan comments on Fist of Fury’s Hong Kong reception in Be Water: “It caught that moment in a colony where people were saying, ‘Yes, the days of us of being second-class citizens are over.’” Immediately, his films, which were produced by “distil[ling] a lot of emotion into a very, very passionate explosion”, according to film critic Sam Ho, felt highly cathartic. “He was very much a national [hero] in the sense that he wanted the Chinese people to be free and independent,” his student and friend Abdul-Jabbar adds. Those messages seem even more relevant today—something that has not escaped Nguyen.
“This just happens to be a year when there’s a lot going on in the world,” Nguyen says. “The motto ‘be water’ obviously has more resonance today in Hong Kong and many places, even in America when people are talking about fighting for their rights. Bruce Lee’s story and his message of self-determination, believing in yourself and bridging the gap between people who are different still resonates today.”
To the Vietnamese-American director, “be water” alludes to his own family’s story and echoes how his own culture is portrayed. “I was looked down upon for being Asian; there was an assumption I knew kung fu,” he says. “It’s important that people are seeing through many different facets, not just through a positive or negative lens, which creates this impossible goal and aspiration for a lot of people.”
He adds that the depiction of his parents’ home country in cinema remains fixated on dated depictions stemming from the Vietnam War in ways that he finds “quite appalling”. “The Vietnamese are seen as not even human. They’re just these bodies that people shoot around in a Vietnam war film. The term Vietnam has been attributed to a war rather than a country. And so, I hope that with new storytellers out there, there is a new perspective on Vietnam as not just the war, which is important, but as a people, a country and an identity,” he says.
It’s not only anti-Vietnamese prejudice, or a problem specific to the US or a certain country. Shannon adds: “There are always some people who feel that it is OK to make harassing and negative comments and be cruel and dismissive of other people from other cultures or other backgrounds, which is unfortunate. It happens a lot. And it’s been on the rise for Asians in particular over the last few months because of the coronavirus.” According to the US-based Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, 1,497 discrimination complaints were filed from March 19 to April 15 in the US alone. Incidents of racism against Asians motivated by Covid-19 have spread across Europe, the US, the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere.
Carrying on the legacy
“It shows as a society how much work we have to do to get past the way in which everybody wants to point the finger and blame,” Shannon says. “There is a lot of systemic and individual racism in this country against all sorts of people: black people, for sure, Asians, Hispanics and native, indigenous peoples. I really feel that my father’s impact, his philosophies and the way he moved through life are completely relevant and appropriate today.”
Bruce Lee led an all-too-short life—as did his only son, the actor Brandon Lee, who died in an accident while filming The Crow in 1993—but his daughter and Nguyen intend to ensure that his message is carried forward. “We can continue to take inspiration from his idea of being like water: being present and aware,” Shannon says.