Movies

Quentin Tarantino’s Bruce Lee Problem

Back in March, when the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s latest — and allegedly penultimate — movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, hit the internet, there was one scene that concerned anyone who wasn’t already a die hard Tarantino stan. In it, Brad Pitt’s character seemingly fights Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee to a standstill. Needless to say, I wasn’t encouraged.

Of course everyone who responded to our concerns came back with the same counterargument: “it’s just a trailer” or “wait until the movie comes out.” Well, we waited. And it’s even worse than imagined.

Though Bruce is a prominent part of the trailer, what we saw in it is what we got in the movie. The Dragon goes toe-to-toe with Pitt’s character but not before Bruce Lee — an Asian American icon who fought back against a racist Hollywood system when he was alive — is turned into a laughing stock and, quite literally, a punching bag whose only job is to put over the white male protagonist.

Not surprisingly, the first reactions from Film Twitter either neglected to critique this portrayal or worse, didn’t even think it was offensive in the first place. Most mainstream reviews fail to even mention it’s in the movie. Maybe Bruce Lee is a joke to them?

One person who Bruce is not a joke to is Shannon Lee, his daughter. In an interview with The Wrap, Shannon explains what’s problematic about the Bruce Lee of Once Upon a Time…

“I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”

This is her response when realizing the Bruce Lee being depicted in the movie was meant to be a source of ridicule.

“It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.”

Sure, Bruce Lee was cocky and famously hot-tempered; however, the Bruce Lee we get in Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood history is one that reminds every Asian American how someone as revered as Bruce Lee can also be used as an insult. Which, by the way, is the premise behind Jeff Yang and Phil Yu’s podcast, They Call Us Bruce. [UPDATE: Speaking of podcasts, our episode about this topic is now live here.]

That said, this takes nothing away from Mike Moh’s spot-on performance as Bruce Lee. In fact, he’s so good in the role that I’d rather see him play in a proper biopic. If anything, I hope for people who see the movie — and more importantly, see what’s wrong with Bruce Lee’s depiction — they will finally be convinced that just because Tarantino made Kill Bill (which I find problematic in its own right) and likes Wong Kar Wai movies, it doesn’t mean his view of Asians, and communities of color more broadly, isn’t a little fucked up.

7 comments

  1. I am a huge Bruce Lee fan, (although, I’ll wager a lot of black people who grew up in the 70s and 80s are), and I know a lil’ sum-sum about his life. I haven’t seen the movie, and had no plans to do so, but I have heard from a not insignificant number of Asian American critics who were very unhappy with his portrayal in this movie, and who even went so far as to say this depiction of Bruce throws a lot of Tarantino’s other films (especially regarding race issues) into question. I have even defended a couple of Tarantino’s more questionable movies on my blog, as well.

    That said, I’m going to defer to the Asian American community on this one, as it’s something that directly affects them, and also because I just love to see Asian Americans put their shit down, it’s cool that they’re doing that more often these days, and I like to encourage.

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  2. I’d been looking forward to this film, but the more I hear about it the less enthused I get.
    what’s the best source for information about Lee’s life (besides podcasts, which I never find time to listen to)? Documentary, book, whatever? Your post makes me curious to learn more.

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  3. Tarantino is a huge ass for depicting a man who he and many, many others consider a legend and groundbreaking martial artist as well as filmmaker in such a shitty way. He really did portray him as an egotistical, narcissistic person and the many of his fans that have truly studied his life and work know that is not how he was in everyday life. Yes he had his moments but he was a human being and we all have those moments we wish we could go back and react differently. Such a shame instead of using that moment to maybe show how great Bruce Lee was he used it to make him out as a joke. Instead of adding something honorable to his legend he used that moment that will forever be in history on film to dim Bruce Lees light and legacy just as Hollywood did as he lived.

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  4. The sequence in question was a fantasy sequence in which Cliff Boothe imagines the ramifications of asking for stunt work.

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