I throw in with neither Team Tarantino nor Team Lee (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5 Addendum B)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH) has been back in the news lately because of various high-profile comments about Bruce Lee’s portrayal therein. The first came from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose arguments I’d sum up like this:¹
- Lee taught him martial arts, discipline, and spiritualism, which allowed him to have a long NBA career with few injuries.
- Lee fought against the racist stereotypes in Hollywood, through his acting, writing, and creation of Jeet Kune Do.
- Tarantino is punching down in his film just as Hollywood did in the ’70’s.
- Lee would never accept challenges to fight, though there were many.
I’m pretty far down the list of people who are going to say Hollywood’s not racist; indeed, I know the opposite is true. And I agree Tarantino is using the platform of a big-budget Hollywood film to tarnish the image of Lee. I hope I have established in this series such is not my intent.
As to Lee’s teachings allowing Abdul-Jabbar to stay injury free, perhaps, though Lee did manage to badly injure his own back by failing to warm up properly before a workout in 1970. This rookie mistake saw him laid up for months, and some even link it to his untimely demise because of drugs he took to manage the pain, so not a great advertisement for training with Bruce.
On the part about Lee never taking challenges, there are other sources among the caretakers of his legacy who say he did, and always won. I’m much more inclined to believe Abdul-Jabbar on this one as having firsthand knowledge and no vested interest in perpetuating the myth of Lee the unbeatable martial artist, in addition to jibing with my research for this series.
More recently, Tarantino fired back at criticisms like Abdul-Jabbar’s in an interview. I’d summarize his points thus:²
- His source indicates Lee had contempt for stuntmen in the Green Hornet era,
- And would deliberately make contact instead of pulling blows in fight scenes with them,
- So Gene LeBell was brought in to keep him in line.
Matthew Polly, whose book Bruce Lee, a Life, Tarantino cites as his source, differs with this characterization:³
What I said in my book is that Bruce wanted to change American fight choreography so that the blows would miss by millimeters rather than by feet (aka the John Wayne punch) in order to better sell the technique. But in the process, Bruce did bang up some of the stuntmen on The Green Hornet, which pissed them off. So they asked Gene LeBell to settle Bruce down.
Now I’m not going to run out and buy Polly’s book to track down what he says there, but his description of the LeBell incident is paraphrased in an article, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, thus:⁴
[…] Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell [sic] (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him.
So it seems despite my initial sense of convergence, Tarantino came at his portrayal of Lee from a very different place than my series: he’s both factually incorrect as well as buying into the Lee myth to the extent he uses it to index Cliff’s martial prowess.
Shannon Lee again responded to Tarantino, with her main arguments being:⁵
- Tarantino repeatedly rips off Bruce Lee without giving him credit, e.g. in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), but now in OUaTiH when he finally does name him, it’s only to denigrate him.
- She’s tired of being white/ mansplained to about who her father was.
- Bruce Lee was a true martial artist, taught it, wrote about it, created his own, and innovated in training, but didn’t fight in tournaments because he thought “combat should be ‘real’”.
- He also had a huge impact on action films and fight choreography, inspired interest in the martial arts, and continues to inspire people as a source of pride for Asian Americans and people of color.
- Tarantino uses him to establish Cliff’s badassery, and tears him down as “a mediocre, arrogant martial artist”.
- Going after Bruce Lee again when there is increasing violence against Asian Americans is pretty tone deaf
These are some pretty good points, and I agree with most of them—especially that Tarantino essentially fails with his portrayal of Lee: Cliff beating up Bruce Lee the martial arts icon shows us how tough the character is, but Lee’s really just a blowhard without a lot of skill—and you can’t really have it both ways.
The part of Shannon Lee’s article I disagree with, obviously, is about Bruce, the martial artist. He did teach martial arts, but with a maximum of two years of experience when he started. He did create and write about his own, which was largely transparently plagiarized from other sources and has never produced a champion. And finally—and Shannon Lee slips up a bit here—if he avoided tournaments because he wanted combat to be real, why did he engage so enthusiastically in the inherent fakery of martial arts films?
As for the current climate of violence against Asian Americans, It’s disgusting, especially since those perpetrating it seem to target older people, and so couple cowardice with their virulent racism. Full disclosure: yes, I am white, but these articles were written in defense of Wong Jia Man (黃澤民), a Chinese-born American whose name the Lee mythmaking machine has used a ton of money and power to defame for decades. If anything, I could be accused of being offended on behalf of someone who’s not, since, as I’ve mentioned, Wong would joke about the lies told about him. And I am sad to report, since I began this series, this true master of Hsing-I-Bagua (形意-八卦), T’ai Chi Ch’üan (太極拳), and Northern Sil Lum (北少林, Běishàolín) passed away in December 2018.
Returning to the feud between Tarantino and Shannon Lee, again, it helps them both: on Tarantino’s side, there’s a saying a work can succeed either by being good or being controversial—for instance, getting something like The Satanic Verses banned only sold more books—and mouthing off in very public fora and in highly inflammatory ways about Martial Arts Jesus is sure to reach a large audience. On the Lee, Inc. side, as I said in the previous Addendum, this controversy only serves to renew interest in Bruce, so Shannon Lee is just a pot to the kettle she accuses Tarantino of being.
Present also is the kind of divisiveness and polarization much of our discourse these days tends toward. You have to decide if you’re going to be on Team Lee or Team Tarantino, because the kind of nuanced, fact-based view I’ve presented is either TL;DR, or puts me in Quentin’s camp, where I really don’t want to be.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
Part 5 Addendum: Kato’s Comeuppance
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Bruce Lee Was My Friend, and Tarantino’s Movie Disrespects Him”, The Hollywood Reporter, August, 2019.
- “Quentin Tarantino”, The Joe Rogan Experience, June, 2021.
- Matthew Polly (@MatthewEPolly), July 1, 2021, Twitter.
- Starke, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, How to Fight Write, 2020. Polly liked a Tweet of this blogpost, so I assume it’s accurate.
- Shannon Lee, “Does Quentin Tarantino Hate Bruce Lee? Or Does It Just Help Sell Books?”, The Hollywood Reporter, July, 2021.