A few days ago, director Quentin Tarantino defended the portrayal of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee in his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Claiming Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino wasn’t having anything that Lee’s daughter, Shannon, or protege Dan Inosanto were saying. In response to that, both Shannon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a student of Lee’s) have spoken up about how they feel over the incident.
Starting off, Shannon took a more fiery approach. Speaking to Variety, she bluntly stated, “He could shut up about it. That would be really nice. Or he could apologize or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.'” She then pointed out the contradictions in Tarantino’s statement, claiming the man is trying to state things as fact and fiction simultaneously.
“One of the things that’s troubling in his response,” Lee stated, “is that, on the one hand, he wants to put this forward as fact and, on the other hand, he wants to stay in fiction.” She then added that her father’s confidence may have come off as arrogance to some and that he was not a perfect man. “[Tarantino] can portray Bruce Lee however he wanted to, and he did,” she continued, “But it’s a little disingenuous for him to say, ‘Well, this is how he was, but this is a fictional movie, so don’t worry too much about it.'”
As for Kareem, this morning The Hollywood Reporter published an article penned by the NBA legend that called the film’s portrayal of Lee disrespectful. Jabbar wrote, “Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.”
“Bruce Lee was my friend and teacher,” says Jabbar. “That doesn’t give him a free pass for how he’s portrayed in movies. But it does give me some insight into the man.” Jabbar then goes on to explain how Lee hoped to fight the stereotypical representation of Asian men in Hollywood cinema with his films. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jabbar claims the man is seen as one-dimensional and an embodiment of everything that he fought to change.
“I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. He always politely declined and moved on,” Jabbar recalls. “First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option. He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways.”
One of the biggest points of contention in this whole situation is that fictional Bruce claims he could defeat Muhammed Ali in a brawl. As Tarantino stated in his defense, “If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali.’ Well, yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read.” Variety did some digging to find the supposed quote Tarantino is referring to.
In the biography Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, Linda writes, “Those who watched [Bruce] Lee would bet on Lee to render Cassius Clay senseless.” As you can see, it wasn’t Lee that boasted about it and even his wife didn’t claim he could. Tarantino seems to be misremembering what he read to make a point.
I’m just utterly puzzled about what to think here. I know Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a satirization of Hollywood, but I have my own opinions on Tarantino and Lee that I can’t separate. It’s a situation where I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to objectively watch the film as I’ve dug too much into the drama behind it. Sometimes we need to let go of our emotional attachment to certain celebrities and just enjoy a film for what its message is. Whether or not Once deserves that is an entirely different debate.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Bruce Lee Was My Friend, and Tarantino’s Movie Disrespects Him [The Hollywood Reporter]