In his brief lifetime, Bruce Lee never walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. But as an Asian-American male on television and the star of some of the most influential action movies of all time, Lee was a civil rights figure in his own terms. At least, that's the new idea behind the upcoming movie Be Water, the next film in ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series.
"Hardcore fans always want to see what's 'never been seen.' This is the story that’s never been told," director Bao Nguyen tells Inverse. "A lot of people know Bruce Lee. But do they know it in the context of America's racist history, heartbreak, and insecurity?"
Although Bruce wasn't walking shoulder-to-shoulder, Nguyen says, "he understood the power of community and bridging communities."
Directed by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Bao Nguyen, Be Water tells the familiar story of Bruce Lee in a new context. Fueled by personal heartbreaks and insecurities, Lee became a dominant film star in Hong Kong before his sudden death at 32, mere days before the premiere of his first and only Hollywood picture Enter the Dragon in 1973.
The film also defines Bruce Lee as a Chinese-American citizen in 1960s America, a divided nation caught up in the brutal and bloody fight for Black civil rights. The film's opening montage, and later exploration of his adult life in America, frames Bruce Lee as a partial participant and witness to figures like Martin Luther King Jr. It's not widely known that Lee's first student of kung fu was Jesse Glover, a Black man victimized by police brutality.
The film's title, "Be water," is one of Bruce Lee's most well-known nuggets of wisdom, arguing for fluidity in movement and thinking. This is the key to redefining the legend as more than just a film star, but as someone who wasn't exactly at the center of Civil Rights but was definitely fighting his own battles alongside it.
In an interview with Inverse, director Bao Nguyen reveals the importance of Bruce Lee's legacy, an individual whose philosophies have been adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and possibly soon around the world.
How is Bruce Lee a protest figure?
If you think about that time [in America], the face of the enemy was Asian. The Vietnam War was starting. A decade earlier was the Korean War, before that World War II. By playing the hero, that was subverting all past portrayals of what an Asian-American male can be on the silver screen.
Not being beholden to stereotypes and trying roles that were courageous and heroic was a form of protest. He wasn't walking with Dr. King or Malcolm X, and he's sometimes criticized for that now. But when you think of it, he was kind of this small figure in Hollywood [back then]. He didn't have the same stature as Marlon Brando.
I can understand the impact he had in terms of wanting to portray an Asian or Asian-American in a positive light. I understand the power we play in helping create stereotypes. We don't always have to be the hero but we shouldn't always be the villain. Bruce understood that was his way of being an advocate.
How is Bruce Lee relevant to today's movements like Black Lives Matter?
The title of the film, Be Water, it's a metaphor for America. America is still an experiment that is evolving. Being American is evolving. We forget that when we talk about America. It's not stagnant.
When we're talking about anti-Asian incidents because of Covid-19 or the events of Minneapolis, when we see time and time again how African Americans are treated less than human, these are things that America as a country and community have to figure a way to maneuver around. We're in a moment of water crashing.
I tried to make the film feel fluid, in terms of visuals and style. There's moments we see racial strife, not just of the Asian community but Civil Rights. Those were obstacles Bruce had to get around like water. You have to be fluid to progress in life. For me it was important and kind of a strange time for this film to come out now when we're talking about how we’re forming ideas what community looks like. The friendships of Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jesse Glover is something we can all learn from, especially Asian/Black solidarity.
What do you think Bruce Lee would have thought about Black Lives Matter?
He was informed by the people he met. His first student Jesse Glover, in Seattle, became a martial artist because he was a victim of police brutality and had to find a way to defend himself. The closeness with Jesse informed what Bruce thought about America. His relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar educated him about Black Liberation and civil rights.
There's this term at the end of the film, that martial arts philosophy of bridging the gap. It’s in the context of fighting your opponent, but it can be mean being close to your neighbor and those around you. He was very much a proponent of solidarity and fighting for the underrepresented.
Why is Bruce Lee important to you personally?
My parents were Vietnamese refugees. They came in the late '70s and I was born after in the '80s. I was too young to see Bruce Lee's films when they were playing in Chinatown. I first saw Enter the Dragon on Saturday afternoon syndication. I was probably seven or eight years old, and I was astonished seeing someone who looked like me on screen being a hero, being so charismatic. I was used to subservient or villainous portrayals. To see yourself on screen is life-changing. That resonated with me because we don't see many people who look like us on screen.
Your film supports the story that Bruce Lee was passed in favor of David Carradine for the TV show Kung Fu. How do you think Bruce's career would have changed if he starred in that show?
There's something to say about being able to tell your own story and having the experience, honesty, and authenticity to tell that story. David Carradine didn't have that same background Bruce Lee had. I think that would have really elevated that series.
At the same time, by not appearing in Kung Fu, he moved to Hong Kong and made some of the greatest martial arts films ever made. Enter the Dragon might never have happened if he had to stay in that small screen of television when he belonged on the larger screen of cinema.
Be Water is bold in that it's the first documentary to call Bruce Lee an "asshole." What do you think made him difficult to work with as an artist?
It's hard for me to place myself in the mind of Bruce Lee. I would never do that. But hearing the stories about him and the environment he was in, people were putting him down because of what he looked like. People didn’t give him the time of day, especially in Hollywood.
There was the model minority assumption: Know your place and stay in your place. But Bruce Lee never followed the rules. He believed in himself and for good reason. When you watch his films you see his charisma and presence that is hard to replicate in other actors. He was truly one of a kind. So when someone tells him he can't do something, it's in his personality to — call it arrogance, call it confidence — believe in himself so much. That's what made him Bruce Lee, and get around obstacles of people telling him no.
People have to fight for what they want and actors have a bit of insecurity. For me, hearing Bruce Lee feel insecure was a surprise. You never would think of Bruce being insecure. But he has the same anxieties and fears a lot of us do. Leaving Hong Kong for America, his brother [Robert] tells the story that the night before he left he cried. He was scared. Those moments were important to understanding how Bruce Lee became Bruce Lee, this model of masculinity and confidence that has perpetuated in American mythology demystified by his loved ones. [His girlfriend] Amy Sanbo broke his heart and that's when he decided to become an entrepreneurial American. A lot of people relate to feeling heartbroken and redirecting ambition.
What if Bruce Lee lived? Would he be an even bigger star, or is he bigger in death?
I wrestle with this question. I asked this to everyone we interviewed. They lean towards the practical side of what Bruce Lee would have achieved. Surely he would have brought Asian cinema to Hollywood, he would have become an advocate. He already was a representative for inclusion, he would have become someone like Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando; have the statue and ability to use his platform to speak about larger issues. I’m sure he’d be walking Kareem and protesting and advocating for racial equality in America.
He cemented his immortality at the age of 32, in his prime, in the same way Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and many other artists. Because of that he's this symbol, this legend that has carried him. There is something to be said of what the name and myth Bruce Lee stands for.
Be Water premieres Sunday, June 7 at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN and streaming on ESPN+.