Once Upon A Time In Hollywood vs. The Real Bruce Lee 

Image Credit: Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures — Feat. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee

Image Credit: Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures — Feat. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee


By Editor-In-Chief, Amy Tam

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film and the most hotly anticipated movie of 2019. Skyrocketing to become the cult director’s most successful box office earner to-date; the film has already made over $US183 million worldwide, as first reported by IndieWire.

However, amidst the almost universal fever over Tarantino’s latest revenge fantasy, his depiction of Hollywood legend Bruce Lee has since attracted the ire and disappointment of his fans, family, and friends alike.

Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, ex-wife Linda Lee Cadwell, as well as his friend and NBA legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have all criticised Tarantino for his “Chinesey” and “one-dimensional” caricature of Lee, which, Abdul-Jabbar said in his column for the Hollywood Reporter, “harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle.

L-R Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in  Once Upon A Time In Hollywood  (2019)

L-R Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

The now controversial scene which features prominently in the Once Upon A Time in Hollywood trailer, sees Tarantino’s fairy-tale version of Bruce Lee boasting about his ability to beat Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) and challenging Brad Pitt’s tough-guy stuntman, Cliff Booth, to a best two-out-of-three rounds fight on the film set of The Green Hornet— Lee’s first Hollywood gig.

We see Lee spitball to onlookers that his hands are “registered as lethal weapons,” before he performs his ‘signature’ (cliché) martial arts moves, only to be eventually thrown into a car by Booth before the third round is disrupted, leaving no clear winner. The scene ends with Booth scoffing sarcastically as Lee claims he would have won the fight, if not for the disruption. Pitt was reported to have been responsible for changing the original ending to the scene, which saw Lee lose the third round.


Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory
— Bruce Lee

Among others, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was Lee’s student and co-star in cult-hit Game of Death (1973) — which Tarantino heavily referenced in his Kill Bill films — Jackie Chan has also previously acknowledged Lee’s role in launching his career, describing how Lee actively showed concern for him on the film set of Fists Of Fury (1972), when Chan was an unknown stuntman and Lee was a full-fledged star.

This and many other real-life stories may point to why Tarantino’s characterisation of Lee, has become all-the-more confusing and jarring to those who knew the man intimately as anything but an egomaniac.

Shannon Lee described to The Wrap how she was disheartened by Tarantino’s depiction of Lee as “an arrogant a-hole who was full of hot air”. While she acknowledged Tarantino’s creative right to create the character he wanted for his movie, she pointed out that he “didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”

Image Credit: Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures — Feat. Mike Moh as Bruce Lee

Image Credit: Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures — Feat. Mike Moh as Bruce Lee

Fans of both Tarantino and Lee have passionately commented on both sides of the debate. Tarantino fans argue that Bruce Lee himself would have found it funny and that Tarantino created a fictional character and not a documentary based on Lee’s real-life character.

Lee’s supporters have pointed out that Tarantino chose to honour all the other real-life historical figures in his ode to Hollywood except for the Manson family killers; such as Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Therefore, what could the justification be for so wildly misrepresenting Lee’s legacy as the only coloured actor depicted in his film, fictional or otherwise?

Rather than argue for either side of the ongoing debate, I’ve decided to briefly explore what the actual impact of Bruce Lee has been on Hollywood since the ’70s and why his legacy is worth taking a deeper dive into.

Before I do, it must be said that I do not personally believe that Quentin Tarantino intended to be malicious towards Lee’s legacy and that wherever this conversation goes over time; the debate has been a worthy discussion on the topic of how minority cultures and groups are (mis)represented in film and television.

Bruce Lee was the first Asian American global action star to emerge out of Hollywood since his break-out and final film, Enter the Dragon in 1973. Lee, who was also the first Asian American to star to be the lead in a Hollywood studio picture, died just one month before the release of the film, that would transform him into an international martial arts icon.

The picture which cost a mere $US850,000 to make, went on to gross $US90 million, with a worldwide gross equivalent to $US508 million, when adjusted for inflation. Lee’s fight for representation as a lead actor in Hollywood paid off handsomely and created a legacy that has influenced generations of martial artists, filmmakers, actors, action stars and athletes.

Lee is arguably the first Hollywood action star — of any race — who established the template and platform for the careers of Hollywood action stars since his time, including Chuck NorrisSteven SeagalArnold SchwarzeneggerClaude Van DammeSylvester Stallone, and Jackie Chan.

During his short 32-year-old life, Lee was able to bridge the gap between East and West — through the language of his prowess as a martial artist, his magnetic charisma and Eastern-based philosophies, which transcended language and culture, to create what is now considered a cinematic legend. Some of his more renown postulates include [Source: BruceLee.com]:

· Be Water My Friend: Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

· Using No Way as Way: Having No Limitation As Limitation.

· Always be yourself; express yourself; have faith in yourself: When I look around, I always learn something and that is to be always yourself, and to express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it. Start from the very root of your being, which is “How can I be me?”

· Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.

· Be a practical dreamer backed by action.

· If there is a God, he is within. You don’t ask God to give you things, you depend on God for your inner theme.

· To change with change is the changeless state.

· Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.

· Walk On!: When life gives you obstacles, you must summon the courage and Walk On!

The esoteric nature of his philosophies is perhaps the very reason why depictions of Lee in the West have often fallen short of the creative master, who has served multiple generations of actors, filmmakers, and fans — by changing their perceptions of what is possible.

While his insights lend themselves to perfectly quotable platitudes and internet memes, they have not necessarily been fully understood by mass culture, and arguably, Tarantino’s misrepresentation of Lee’s actual persona further complicates that possibility, until, hopefully, newer depictions are created, which dare to delve into who he really was at a much deeper level.

In breaking through the barriers of systematic racism in Hollywood, Lee’s story is one that defied the cultural limitations of his time and continues to speak to us today as an example of human and artistic excellence.

However, Lee was not a perfect human being. As a teenager, he picked street fights and admitted:

From boyhood to adolescence…The first thought that came into my mind whenever I met someone I disliked was, “Challenge him!” I thought that victory meant beating down others, but I failed to realise that victory gained by way of force was not (a) real victory. When I enrolled in the University of Washington and was enlightened by philosophy, I regretted all my previous immature assumptions.” — Bruce Lee

In the madmen era in which he lived and worked, when toxic masculinity was not only acceptable but lauded, Lee realised that the type of posturing Tarantino’s Bruce Lee embodied; was actually immature, disempowering and in opposition to his interest in self-actualisation and mastery.

Unlike most Hollywood stars, Lee was not simply known for his onscreen presence as an entertainment icon. He had his own voice, which had substance; wisdom that underpinned his cool and a willingness for authenticity, more sophisticated than his forebears.

Some of the philosophies made famous by Lee are featured in his 1965 televised interview on the Pierre Berton Show, in which he discusses his reluctance to be called a ‘star’ and the wisdom of moving beyond “cockiness” to choose to embody honest self-reflection instead.

What was highly unusual about Lee was his willingness to examine himself as a human being and be honest about it publicly. That was never a part of the role of the celebrity in the ’70s, and, his cultural background aside, Lee did not represent the typical voice of a Hollywood action hero.

Most Hollywood icons, even today, rely on audiences to willingly suspend their disbelief in their humanity; in order to believe in their public persona and the iconoclast imagery built around them — thereby, elevating them to cult status, in order to establish them as commercial juggernauts.

Their agents, managers and public relations teams construct their public image, and no matter what occurs behind closed doors, their well-publicised myth is what transforms them into a bankable business.

Feat. Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul- Jabbar in  Game of Death  (1978)

Feat. Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul- Jabbar in Game of Death (1978)

Lee cannot be separated from that paradigm. However, what does separate him, was his desire for honest self-expression — in front of and behind the camera. It was this aspect of his public persona, which was ground-breaking and ahead of his time.

Today, most celebrities will, one way or another, sell their own brand of authenticity, now realising the value of connecting to their fans and followers as real people. Lee was possibly the first celebrity to ever do so, during a cultural moment in which myth-making was king.

Today, as Hollywood finds itself inside an at times uncomfortable paradigm shift, in which Lee’s dream of authentic depictions of film characters of all ethnicities exists at the epicentre of the zeitgeist — perhaps, it’s time for Lee’s full impact on culture and cinema to be properly acknowledged — regardless of which side of the debate about his latest depiction we find ourselves on.

While the conversation regarding Lee’s depiction in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will no doubt continue to rage on, what we can be sure of is that the actual and significant value of his legacy remains relevant and beneficial to our times.

To discover more about Bruce Lee visit BruceLee.com.

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