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The Bruce Lee Story We Never Saw On-Screen

His action sequences continue to be indelible. But it was Lee's push for Asian representation in film that might be his ultimate legacy.

A number of Bruce Lee’s films speak to the tension between East and West, but nothing is seared into my memory quite like his duel against Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon — a battle of two titans, one in white and the other black, each throwing strikes that could kill a lesser man. 

The 1972 Hong Kong thriller is the first martial-arts flick I remember seeing as a child while sitting next to my dad late at night. The grainy VHS image did nothing to dull Lee’s grinning, vicious extravagance as he plowed through mobsters. The plot isn’t much, just following the tribulations of a small restaurant that’s resisting takeover by the mafia, with some help from a deceptively lithe country boy named Tang. But Lee doesn’t need much narrative help to jump off the screen as Tang. It happens in every scene, especially the climactic fight against Norris’ karate-trained American fighter, Colt, sent to dispatch Tang once and for all. 

As an Asian American, it was both curious and freeing to watch a movie in which Norris, the gleaming symbol of Caucasian excellence I’d cheered for during reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger, looks like the foreigner. More than that, Norris looks out of his depth. Neither man speaks during the fight, only communicating in strikes and the occasional yelping scream, but it’s Lee whose energy dominates the frame. With each thunderous kick and punch, we see Tang push Colt to the breaking point. 

Ultimately, the American won’t accept mercy, even while crawling on the concrete with broken hands. With sad eyes, Tang delivers finality with a twist of the neck, then places his enemy’s gi and black belt on the body in a show of respect. The Way of the Dragon is Lee’s first and only film in the director’s chair, but it’s easy to see all the threads that would intertwine to form his posthumous legacy: his eye for violence, his wit, his appreciation for understated wisdom.

The Chinese-American star was no stranger to debates around race, and he often chose to address it head-on in interviews and film scenes alike, as with the iconic smashing of a “No Dogs and Chinese” sign in Fist of Fury. But as the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Be Water unveils, Lee’s inner life held tough and unresolved questions of what his identity really was. Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, Lee tasted real privilege as the son of a Cantonese opera star, landing roles as a child actor early in his life. By the time he turned 18, however, his father wanted the unruly Lee to learn independence by moving back to America — a decision that created the Lee we know today, yet also taught him harsh lessons about his assumed position in society’s hierarchy.

Despite his uncanny resolve, Lee struggled to navigate a Hollywood that had little room for Asian stars. He questioned the value of assimilation. He simmered with unexpressed talent. And, most of all, he pondered the split he felt between Hong Kong and the West Coast. Labeled a “mid-Pacific” man by his Chinese detractors, Lee was a child of both, but seemingly didn’t belong in either. 

Filmmaker Bao Nguyen uses in-depth interviews with friends and family, fresh archival footage and lots of Lee’s own words to portray this inner world in Be Water. It traces Lee’s life through the seminal years spent as a young man in Seattle, teaching martial arts to blue-collar workers and people of color, who in turn showed Lee how to, in essence, be more “American.” We see the impact of Lee’s incredible screen test for The Green Hornet, in which he dazzles producers with his charm, eloquence and fiery kung-fu moves. And we understand why he both tolerated and railed against systemic racism in its various forms, eventually getting burned out by Hollywood and moving back to Hong Kong with a blunt decree: “Truth is, I am a yellow-faced Chinese. I cannot possibly become an idol for Caucasians,” he says in one talk-show appearance. “Because of this, I’ve decided to come back and serve the Chinese film industry.”

The Way of the Dragon is now seen as a huge melding of East and West, and a trigger for the martial-art film craze that would take hold in the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It started a four-film run that would cement Lee’s importance both in America and overseas, but even today, stereotypes of his portrayals remain more famous than any understanding of who he was and what he fought for. It explains, for instance, why Quentin Tarantino would take such a flippant attitude in writing Lee as a egomaniacal dork with more arrogance than ability for his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though the film doesn’t touch on the fracas between Tarantino and Lee’s daughter (and estate president) Shannon, the depth of Be Water’s narrative serves as a compassionate, and necessary, response to such one-dimensional imagery. 

Lee’s sudden death at the age of 32 cut short what could’ve been a truly game-changing legacy, given the way he advocated for Asians in media long before the broader culture supported such an idea. I wonder what he would’ve thought of the hugeness of his persona, given what he tells an interviewer after his American breakthrough: “The word superstar really turns me off, and I’ll tell you why, because the word star, man, it’s an illusion. I don’t see myself as a star. I really don’t.”

Is that simple humility, or is he unfolding the idea that becoming a “star” requires layers of privilege that no one could really see? It’s one of a thousand questions Nguyen, who I recently spoke to during a wide-ranging call to see what he learned over five intense years of research and filmmaking, pondered while creating Be Water

How did your own experience growing up Asian in America inspire this documentary?
My parents were Vietnamese war refugees. They left Vietnam in 1978, traveled on a boat for two weeks, and then made their way to Hong Kong. They were in a refugee camp there for six months. Eventually, they were able to immigrate to the U.S. — Wisconsin, for the first year. Then I was born and raised in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C. So it’s a typical experience of growing up in an immigrant family, not really knowing what my place is in America, and not seeing images of Asians portrayed in a positive light on screen very often. 

My parents used to take me to some, uhh, inappropriate films — stuff like Basic Instinct or Indecent Proposal [laughs]. But even that stuff didn’t really leave a mark like catching Bruce Lee films on TV. I think it was Saturday afternoons that I watched most. The most obvious way I identified with Bruce Lee was by just seeing a person that looked like me, but who was also a very heroic and competent figure. You know, I remember seeing things like Indiana Jones, where there’s a young Asian boy with him named Short Round, but that’s about it. And that’s more of a caricature, right? You see that kind of stuff enough, you feel like a sidekick all the time. 

Why did you want to document a person and symbol who is already so iconic? How did it matter to you?
There have been many films and stories about Bruce Lee in the past, but I wanted to tell it through the lens of growing up as an Asian American, growing up as a child of immigrants, growing up as someone who felt like an outsider. That was the main reason. The second reason is that the conversation of diversity and representation are still very prevalent today. It’s still hard for an actor or actress of color to make it today in Hollywood. I thought it was important for me to explore what someone who looked like Bruce Lee in the 1960s had to deal with. And using Bruce Lee’s voice, the people who knew him most intimately, and the archival footage of that time, I think it tells a better, more intimate, authentic story than maybe a scripted film could. 

People always try to take ownership of Bruce Lee as this global icon, but he’s very much an Asian American, and the struggle of the Asian American is a very important part of an American story that isn’t often told. Centering that theme guided me in terms of what footage, what writings, what questions in his life I wanted to focus on. A lot of it came down to three- or four-hour interviews with people closest to him, to learn what Bruce’s vulnerabilities were, what his fears were, what made him believe in himself so much. He is obviously this model of masculinity and male competence, so I wanted to unpack what it meant to be that but still struggle. 

Be Water really comes alive when it has the people who were closest to Bruce, including his daughter Shannon, not just relaying history but literally reading from his personal letters. How did you gain this kind of access?
For one, I approached Shannon very early on through a mutual friend. She’s very protective of her father’s legacy, as she should be. But while everyone feels like they can take ownership over Bruce Lee, we also have to remember that he was someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s significant other. I think that’s very much how the family approaches every project that they decide to take on. And it took years of building a relationship and trust with Shannon especially to be allowed into the family archive. But the approach I wanted to take with Be Water, I think she saw how it was different, and how much it was personal to me and my experience. That was helpful. 

As you were digging deeper into Lee’s life and perspectives, what surprised you? Were you ever caught off guard by how involved Lee was in considering politics, race and society?
He was very diplomatic, even though in many cases he clearly felt strongly. Even when he didn’t get approval for his show Warrior, basically lost the role, he was still willing to walk in the shoes of the other person — to understand why they couldn’t greenlight it. That’s a really hard trait to hold onto when you’re being constantly belittled and rejected by a whole system. But again, he was someone who believed in his own charisma so much, and his own ability, that he knew he was going to break through at some point. He was going to bust that barrier, and he did.

Even as an actor who was getting roles, he saw that just being on set isn’t a true symbol of representation. That to be a true advocate meant telling your own stories, or owning it in some way. That you had to be writing the lines and directing and having agency in the stories that were being told for someone else. Especially as a newcomer in Hollywood, he didn’t have many Asian-American roles to choose from. But he took a bold stance and said, “I want to be able to have my voice, both literally and figuratively.” I think that gave him courage to ask for lines and character development as Kato in The Green Hornet, for one. 

That’s the conversation that’s still being had today, but with a more evolved understanding of inclusion. It’s not enough for people of color, for underrepresented communities, to be seen on-screen. Those depictions need to be told from an honest and authentic point-of-view through the people who live them and experience them. 

I found it fascinating that, despite it being a no-no to teach martial arts to foreigners in Chinese culture at the time, Bruce decided to teach a lot of diverse people while hustling in Seattle. What did this melding of cultures do for him?
Well, we often think of Bruce as a teacher, right? That he taught these celebrities like James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But in a way, a lot of the people that he taught were teaching him as well, especially with his early students in Seattle like Jesse Glover and Leroy Garcia. He was just coming in onto his own as an American. He was a newly arrived kid from Hong Kong. Negotiating American life wasn’t intuitive. And he tried to bridge that gap by teaching people his Chinese culture, but taking in lessons on assimilation too. 

Given that experience, it’s easy to forget that Bruce came from a very well-known, monied bloodline in Hong Kong.
Yeah, he came from privilege. But when he got to America, he was only given $100 by his dad, and had to start in a position familiar to a lot of immigrants. One of the takeaways from the film is that the idea of America as a true melting pot can really be true. Where you’re teaching people about your identity, but at the same time, you’re learning from those around you, and you’re not segregating yourself, or dividing yourself into separate factions, but meeting each other as who you are. I learned a lot about how that influenced his philosophy on the people around him and even about underdogs. 

But where do you think that unblinking faith in himself came from? Did he secretly carry a lot of doubts?
It’s this perfect kind of yin and yang of East and West attitudes. His father was a famous Cantonese opera singer, and because he grew up on Hong Kong film sets, he was used to being on film sets — there was a comfort there. Then when he went to America, combining that childhood experience with the idea of American manifest destiny and the American dream, you kind of create this monster of potential charisma and star power, for the lack of a better term. 

You saw him in the opening screen test. There’s so much charisma in that one screen test. How could anyone in Hollywood not think this guy is going to be the biggest star in the world? But because of what he looked like, where he came from and a very slight accent, that was enough for Hollywood to shut the door on him. It still seems ludicrous for me. 

As your movie shows, however, moving to Hong Kong wasn’t a perfect solution, even if it was where his films got made and where he got raves. Why was it hard for Lee?
We mention it in the film, but obviously, the discontent of fame is just the loss of privacy and not being able to move freely with your family. And I think he felt like he was living inside of a fish tank, where everyone is staring at him. I don’t think he knew the cost of fame before he reached it. If he had known it, would he have pursued it in the same way? I think the answer is that we’ll never know. But he was such an extraordinary force of nature that I don’t know if anything could’ve contained him from achieving what he wanted to achieve. Again, that’s the tragedy that he wasn’t able to see that, at least in Hollywood, which was his ultimate goal. He never really saw superstardom. That came after Enter the Dragon, and it’s a tragedy that he never saw that. 

What do you consider the ultimate lessons of his personal and professional fight to get more recognition, not just for himself but for other Asian Americans?
Again, what I witnessed in my research is that he always fought for more on sets. That was his protest, and amid an emergence of the Asian-American student movement, he wasn’t out there walking with a sign, but Bruce was protesting the way he knew best — fighting for stuff on-screen. A lot of people were tired of being the model minority. Asians were walking hand-in-hand with the Civil Rights Movement and making sure we were being heard as a community. So when I speak with people from that generation, it’s clear that when they saw a young Chinese-American man who was, for the lack of a better term, kicking ass, you know, it empowered a lot of young Asians who were being bullied for what they looked like and where they came from. 

The sudden death of Lee, at just 32 years old, must’ve been such a shock to everyone you spoke with. How do you think this changed his legacy?
It was important, for me, to document in the film the tragedy of it all. We kind of speculate too much on why or how he died, but it’s important to acknowledge the sadness of it. It’s a big reason why I don’t delve into conspiracy theories. The people closest to him, friends and family, have made their peace about what happened. It was clearly a shock, but looking back at it 40 years later, there’s a tragedy that he didn’t live long enough to see everything he achieved. 

Would he have had a greater impact if he lived? Hard for anyone to answer. It’s important to note that Bruce wanted to play romantic leads and dramatic roles. He could’ve become a leading teacher and advocate for other actors of color who wanted these same roles and ways in. He could’ve pursued politics. But that’s all hypothetical at this point. And I think that’s part of what makes Bruce such a compelling symbol after all these years.