ESPN will be releasing Bao Nguyen's 30 for 30 Bruce Lee documentary entitled Be Water on June 7th, after the film world premiered to great acclaim at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The most recent occasion when audiences saw Lee on the big screen was in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which came under criticism for portraying the actor as a vain braggart. Doing an interview with Uproxx, Nguyen shared his thoughts on Tarantino's take on Lee.
"I'm torn. As a filmmaker, I would never want to kind of tell another filmmaker what type of film they should make or self censor themselves in any way. My parents came from a communist regime in Vietnam where there's still a lot of censorship in terms of film and culture. So yeah, I don't judge on that. That's obviously a fictionalized Tarantino version of Bruce Lee and ours is very different. It's a documentary. It's a more humanistic kind of a whole view of who Bruce Lee was as a person. And I think it's part of the larger conversation that we need to have as artists on how we decide to depict, especially true to life characters, and what responsibilities we have."
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt's character Cliff Booth takes on Bruce Lee on the sets of The Green Horne early in the film. After Lee makes grandiose statements about his fighting skill, the two have a sparring contest that ends in a draw. The crew of the movie has even stated Tarantino originally wanted to show Booth defeating Lee, which Brad Pitt and the rest of the team were uncomfortable with. Nguyen believes Tarantino's heart is in the right place, but taking a legendary real-life figure like Lee and turning him into a negative fictional character hurts the late actor's contributions to cinema.
"Everyone has their own kind of set of responsibility, their understandings of what they need to bring to the ideas of representation. So I think knowing where it's coming from - and again, as you said, Quentin Tarantino is a huge advocate for Asian cinema and Bruce Lee and I don't think it came from a bad place. but I think sometimes we have to think about the responsibility of how we represent, especially characters of color on screen and film."
"If we think about kind of the larger context of cinema as a mainstream Hollywood film, that's kind of a milestone of how an Asian American is portrayed in 2019 through kind of this sort of version of Bruce Lee. So, I think it's all important to think about in context, but I never criticized his choice as a filmmaker, his artistic choice, but we have to delineate between what is the more honest and authentic story of who Bruce Lee was compared to a fictionalized version."
The documentary Be Water premieres Sunday, June 7th on ESPN at 9 pm EST. It takes a close at Lee from his early days in China to his Hollywood ascent and his role in raising the profile of Asian-Americans in Hollywood. This comes from Uproxx.