Before there was Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Steven Segal, or Chuck Norris, there was Bruce Lee, the original Movie Martial Arts Master.
His skyrocketing career was suddenly and tragically cut short on July 20, 1973, but by then he had already become a cultural icon and a household name.
The ESPN '30 for 30' documentary Be Water (the title is taken from Bruce Lee’s famous quote) is a look at the man and the times.
He was born on November 27, 1949 in San Francisco, was appearing in movies at the age of 9 and beginning to study martial arts by the age of 13.
His dream was to open a chain of martial arts schools across the country, but his unique skills led to an audition that led to fame on television and in the movies.
It was a journey beset with obstacles.
At the top of the list, the challenge of transcending the stereotypes that surrounded people of Chinese descent living in America.
Though he enjoyed some limited success on the small screen, playing The Green Hornet’s roundhouse kicking sidekick, Kato, and making a brief but unforgettable appearance in the movie Marlowe (1969) starring James Garner, Lee struggled for recognition and acceptance.
Being passed over for the starring role of the TV series Kung Fu (a part which eventually went to David Carradine after the show’s producers questioned whether audiences would be able to understand Bruce Lee’s accent) he decided to abandon Hollywood and jumpstart his career in Hong Kong where martial arts movies were popular.
He was an immediate success.
Be Water, does a respectable job of charting Bruce Lee’s life, on and off the screen. There are lots of career-defining clips as well as interviews with friends and family.
His friends included people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was one of Bruce Lee’s students. They once co-starred in a movie together (Game of Death, 1978, released four years after Lee passed away).
His other friends and students included Steve McQueen and James Coburn.
He was the cool guy who the coolest guys in Hollywood wanted to hang out with. Pretty remarkable, in and of itself.
The family members interviewed for the film include his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell and his daughter, Shannon Lee.
Strangely, we hear their voices throughout the film and only see them on camera, briefly, at the very end in the final credits.
It seemed an odd narrative decision. The reliance on voice-over tracks raised the question of whether they were still alive.
The other questionable creative choice involved the balance between Bruce Lee himself and the cultural context in which he existed.
While I am a believer in the importance of context as it relates to meaning and understanding (it was the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Temple University back in 1979) in this case it seemed a little overdone.
For Bruce Lee fans here, the interest is in Bruce Lee’s astonishing story and perhaps a little less about the backdrop of history and culture.
It’s a minor criticism, but it did seem to get in the way of what you might expect to see.
Not that some of this information is interesting and worth mentioning.
We’re reminded of the racism that Asian Americans faced in this country back in the Sixties and Seventies, particularly in Hollywood.
Supportive evidence includes Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy caricature of an eccentric Japanese hotel tenant (Mr. Yunioshi) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or the ludicrous casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956).
Hollywood seemed determined to deny Japanese and Chinese actors from appearing in movies, even when the roles demanded it.
If anything, Be Water is a testament to the strength and determination of Bruce Lee, beyond his lightning fast martial arts moves, his physical conditioning and perfection or handsome good looks. His intensity flashed through his eyes.
All these years later, he remains a legend. In just a fistful of movies he guaranteed his screen immortality.
He was a visionary, a pioneer, an original. There was no one like him then or now.
Despite its flaws and unnecessary filler, it’s what makes Be Water worth watching.
In Quentin Tarantino’s recent fairy tale, revisionist, “love letter to Hollywood” (last summer’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), perhaps the only thing more disturbingly re-imagined, besides the alternate reality storyline that Sharon Tate was not brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult, was the suggestion that a pretty boy stunt man could humiliatingly kick the crap out of a character meant to be Bruce Lee.
I know it was meant to be funny, but trust me, it would never ever have happened.