After Quentin Tarantino defended his depiction of martial arts legend Bruce Lee in his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a friend of Lee’s is speaking out.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, retired NBA legend-turned-actor and writer, detailed his criticisms of the way Tarantino portrayed Lee in a recent column for The Hollywood Reporter, calling it “sloppy” and “racist.” He begins by explaining how he and Lee became friends leading up to when they co-starred in 1978’s Game of Death, released posthumously after Lee’s death.
“I first met Bruce when I was a student at UCLA looking to continue my martial arts studies, which I started in New York City,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “We quickly developed a friendship as well as a student-teacher relationship. He taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who calls himself a fan of Tarantino’s films, was disappointed with how the filmmaker chose to rewrite history when it came to Lee’s role in his new movie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Lee (played by Mike Moh) on the set of his Green Hornet TV show, talking about being able to beat Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali) in a fight, which ends up leading to a friendly fight between him and stuntman Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). Booth wins the fight by throwing Lee into a car. Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, has called the depiction “disrespectful” and “a mockery” of her late father’s legacy in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. And Abdul-Jabbar agrees, going even further in his column.
“Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being … That’s what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness.”
Abdul-Jabbar goes on to describe how in their years of friendship, Lee “spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV.”
“The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants,” he writes. “Asian men were portrayed as sexless accessories to a scene, while the women were subservient. This was how African-American men and women were generally portrayed until the advent of Sidney Poitier and blaxploitation films. Bruce was dedicated to changing the dismissive image of Asians through his acting, writing and promotion of Jeet Kune Do, his interpretation of martial arts.”
“That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way,” Abdul-Jabbar continues. “The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.”
The column signs off with Abdul-Jabbar setting the record straight on who Lee really was as a person. “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,” he writes. “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.”
After the Los Angeles Times interview with Shannon came out, Tarantino defended his film by saying that “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy” while speaking at a press conference in Moscow.
“I didn’t just make a lot of that up,” Tarantino said. “I heard him say things like that. People are saying, ‘Well, he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ yeah, he did … Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could. If you ask me the question, ‘Well who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say, Cliff could beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character, then he could beat Bruce Lee up.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now playing in theaters.