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Number One Son: Tarantino’s Bruce Lee Disrespect is Not New in Hollywood

In a survey conducted by The Asian American Man Study that asked “Who is the Asian American man you most admire and why,” the person with the second most votes was Bruce Lee.

The most votes went to “I don’t know/can’t think of one.”

Back in 2001 when some of us Asian American poets were able to visit Bruce and Brandon Lee’s graves to show respect, one of us commented on how being associated with Bruce probably kept us from getting our asses kicked back in the day. Even though it was racist, bullies assuming that all Asian kids knew karate or kung fu probably reduced the number of ass whuppins we received. 

It’s different now. Some people think the martial arts that Asians practice is all for show and fake anyway, it isn’t real fighting. Today, no one is scared of Asians unless it’s the ones who are theoretically taking over the globe and economy. In Western culture, fear equates to a type of toxic respect in masculinity. If you’re feared, people will leave you alone. Look up to you, even. If you’re not, you’re an easy target. Due to scapegoating during the pandemic, violent hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed — and that’s just the cases that get reported. In America, why not attack an Asian American? We’re not feared. There will be no consequences. Bruce’s legacy doesn’t protect us anymore.

For the record, I don’t think Asian American men should want to be feared, or want to conform to toxic masculinity. I’m more interested in the psychological and social effects of being constantly told we’re weak, assumed nonthreatening and therefore not worthy of respect. In short, I don’t want what other men have, I wonder what effect it has to be of a race that is constantly told we will never have what other men have, will never measure up favorably to other men.

There was a controversy with Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a revisionist fable about old Hollywood. There was some talk about how Margot Robbie, who plays Sharon Tate, barely has any dialogue. There seemed to be quite a bit of discussion about it, though Tarantino dismissed it. There was also some conversation about a controversial scene in which Bruce Lee comes across as a pompous asshole and fights a stuntman played by Brad Pitt. The fight is a draw, though Brad Pitt’s character Cliff wins the fight as originally written by Tarantino. 

I’ve seen all of Tarantino’s movies, and been able to enjoy or respect their craft even when I find them problematic. I saw Once Upon A Time… a long while after it was released, to clear my head a bit of the controversy and see if I would enjoy it on its own terms. It wouldn’t be the first time I enjoyed something problematic. But I found it really boring. 

It seems white men, including critics, loved the film, but by now this should surprise exactly zero of us. In the film, Bruce is a caricature who brags about killing Muhammad Ali. I don’t know if Tarantino deliberately made Bruce seem racist against a Black man to take the heat off of himself for using the N-word so much — that might be giving him too much credit. Recently, Tarantino defended the portrayal by accusing Bruce of being disrespectful to stuntmen, although Matthew Polly, who Tarantino cited for this, contradicted Tarantino’s claims and said Bruce was respectful to Ali, and to everyone no matter their role on the set.

Bruce Lee was a human being, so sure, it’s in the realm of possibility that he said messed up shit about Ali, or mistreated stunt people, all of which, if true, is legitimately disturbing. At the same time, Bruce monumentally shaped the way martial arts and fight scenes were done, all over the world, in spite of the racism and exclusion he endured, and Tarantino himself has appropriated, or “paid homage” to, depending on who you ask, that same genre. For him to reduce Bruce Lee to a single, one dimensional caricature while being dismissive of that context, and the white male critics who either ignore or dismiss that context — well, all of that tells us something.

Of course, this is not the first time Tarantino has courted controversy, racial or otherwise. His gratuitous use of the N-word, the appropriation of the Kill Bill films, the misogyny of The Hateful 8, and endangering the life of Uma Thurman, and the list goes on.

A negative stereotype about Asians: we’re good technically, or we’re good at skillfully copying other people, but we have no soul in what we do. And yet, that’s exactly who Tarantino is, and he’s one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his generation.

I tried to watch that Bruce Lee scene in Tarantino’s movie with an open mind, and yet, it made me deeply uncomfortable. Even if Bruce was an arrogant blowhard, he deserved better than what he got on screen by that hallowed white hipster. And at the very least, he deserved for us to have a discussion about it, a serious discussion, instead of pretending it doesn’t matter.

As Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, “I’m tired of hearing from white men in Hollywood that he was arrogant and an asshole when they have no idea and cannot fathom what it might have taken to get work in 1960s and ’70s Hollywood as a Chinese man with (God forbid) an accent, or to try to express an opinion on a set as a perceived foreigner and person of color.”

(In Enter the Dragon, which isn’t even Bruce Lee’s best film, there’s a scene where Bruce fights an evil white henchman one on one. According to the thin plot, Bruce wipes the floor with him out of revenge for his sister. But watching it, I can’t help but feel Bruce is kicking the ass of every white racist who would dare abuse or look down upon one of us Asians. I won’t ask for forgiveness for defending him.)

By the way did you know that Tobey Maguire’s stunt double in Spider-Man 2 was a Vietnamese guy, Johnny Tri Nguyen? That Andrew Garfield’s stuntman in the other Spider-Man movies was Korean American? That the martial arts stunt double for Oberyn Martell in his fight against the Mountain in Game of Thrones was Liang Yang, also the bad guy that Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill fought in the most recent Mission Impossible movie? Strangely, a random white guy tried to take credit for Yang’s work as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Eat your heart out, Michael Derrick Hudson.

Did you know that some of the Asian men that Keanu Reeves (himself a mixed race person, and apparently a real sweetheart in real life) fills with knives, bullets, and punches in John Wick 3 are accomplished martial artists from films such as The Matrix (Tiger Chen) and The Raid (Yayan Ruhian)? That the main bad guy, Mark Dacascos, was Brandon Lee’s body double and sparring partner on The Crow who filled in for a lot of the shots when Brandon was killed on set?

Do you know how much hard work it is for these “bad guys” and “bad women” to flip and throw themselves in the air, to exaggerate the power of a hit from one of the good guys, on camera? How hard they work to make the people hitting them look good?

Count the number of Asian names credited as animators, programmers, and designers in movies and video games. Now count the number of Asian faces in those same entertainments.

Asians have been your heroes, we’re just not allowed to show our faces.


This fragment is excerpted from a longer essay on violence, re-imagining Asian American masculinity, and martial arts.

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