On the heels of the excellent Asian Americans five-part documentary series (produced by Renee Tajima-Pena) that was recently shown on PBS in May, be sure to tune in starting this Sunday, June 7 from 9pm-11pm to watch Be Water, a feature film about the life and legacy of Bruce Lee. The trailer is below:
As you know, Bruce became a huge media star and popular culture icon starting in the 1960s before his untimely death in 1972. His creation and mastery of Jeet Kune Do popularized the martial arts craze, propelled him into mainstream U.S. society and international stardom, and ultimately, he became synonymous with Asian martial arts. While he was not the first high-profile Asian American male actor in Hollywood (as the excellent The Slanted Screen documentary by Jeff Adachi illustrates, actors such as Sessue Hayawaka and James Shigeta preceded him in that respect), his level of fame surpassed every other Asian American male media/cultural figure and he remains arguable the most famous Asian American man ever.
That is not to say that he, or his legacy, is universally beloved by every Asian American. Specifically, some are not happy that, at least in his first high-profile role of Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet, he played one-dimensional characters, namely the kung fu-fighting sidekick who only acts on the command of his White “master.” This narrowly-constructed role eventually led to the stereotype that all Asian American men knew kung fu (or karate, ju jitsu, taekwondo, or any other form of martial arts), and that even if they did, that was all that they were good at — in other words, while they could fight, they weren’t considered intelligent, charismatic, capable of leading large numbers of people, romantically attractive, etc. Even today, this one-dimensional caricature of Asian American men still persists.
Bruce eventually recognized this limitation and the “glass ceiling” that he was running up against inside the Hollywood establishment and decided to go make movies in Hong Kong, where he would have more control over the creative aspects of the films. After the release of movies such as The Big Boss (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972), and his masterpiece Enter the Dragon (1973), he became an international superstar and finally demonstrated through his personal and professional initiative that Asian American men had not only physical ability, but also the personal drive, skill, and determination to create their own image and assert their own sense of identity.
In recent decades, this personal and professional sense of ambition, creativity, and expertise has led many Asian Americans to more carefully understand that Bruce’s acting work in the early part of his career was contained within a severely-restricted and narrowly-constructed framework that unfortunately limited his abilities and led to the perpetuation of certain stereotypes of Asian American men. Nonetheless, within these restrictions, Bruce always injected a sense of passion, creativity, and professional excellence that transcended the limits that were imposed on him. In fact, this same dynamic can be applied to another early Asian American media star, actress Anna May Wong, who had a similar career trajectory (initially playing one-dimensional and stereotypical “dragon lady” roles) but whose professionalism and personal dignity eventually resuscitated her legacy within the Asian American community and who is now cherished as an historical icon and cultural pioneer.
Combined with his initiative to eventually reject this confining media environment, create his own image, and forge connections across cultural divides, it is this legacy that forms the basis of why Bruce Lee is still beloved by so many Asian Americans and how his legacy has inspired so many people from all backgrounds and identities through the decades, as Be Water’s director Bao Nguyen describes. In a society where Asian and Asian American males have been and continue to be stereotyped as weak, Bruce Lee contradicted that perception head-on and gave many Asian American men the opportunity to project a sense of pride in their everyday life. In addition to other excellent documentaries about Bruce Lee such as How Bruce Lee Changed the World, I Am Bruce Lee, and of course the 1993 feature film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story starring Jason Scott Lee, be sure to tune in starting Sunday June 7, 9pm-11m to watch Be Water, the feature documentary about Bruce Lee through ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.