How Bruce Lee Became a Global Protest Icon

Yang-Yi Goh

Maybe you saw all the promotion for Be Water, ESPN’s latest 30 For 30 documentary on Bruce Lee, and thought to yourself: “Hasn’t this been done already?” Well, sure. There have been, based on a quick search, no fewer than 17 documentaries, docuseries, and biopics centered on the legendary martial artist’s all-too-brief life. Last year alone, two different actors portrayed Lee on the big screen: Danny Chan in Ip Man 4, and—controversially—Mike Moh in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But Be Water’s director, Bao Nguyen, makes a pretty strong case for his addition to the canon.

First off: all those other Bruce Lee docs? None of them were directed by an Asian-American. “It comes from a place of authenticity,” Nguyen says of the film. “My parents are Vietnamese war refugees, and they came to America in a similar way to Bruce: with very little in his pocket and not much personal connection to the country.” Through that lens, Nguyen paints a more intimate portrait of the kung fu master than you’re probably used to seeing. “I wanted to go beyond the legacy and the global cultural icon, and look at Bruce as a person, as an Asian-American, as an Other who was viewed with a lot of suspicion and fear by a lot of Americans.”

To that end, Be Water is an unexpectedly urgent film, given its unforeseen arrival in a post-COVID, post-George Floyd America. As the cultural critic Jeff Chang says in the documentary: “[Bruce]’s very presence on screen was a protest in and of itself.” Nguyen artfully weaves in a primer on Asian-American history—from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Japanese internment camps—to give context to Bruce’s struggles in ‘60s Hollywood, and dives deep on his lifelong solidarity with African-Americans. “I hope the film can educate and inform,” Nguyen says, “and just make people think a little bit more about what it means to be American, what it means to be an ally, what it means to know someone for the content of their character.”

With Be Water now streaming on ESPN, Nguyen spoke to GQ about uncovering Bruce Lee’s untold past, his unlikely legacy as a protest figure, and the next step for the Asian-American filmmaking movement.

GQ: You worked on this project for five years. In that time—researching it, editing it, living with it—how did your perception of Bruce Lee change?

Bao Nguyen: Lee is always held up as this model of masculinity and confidence. I wanted to unpack that a bit and hear about his fears and his struggles. A lot of the things I heard were similar to what we all face as outsiders. We spoke to Amy Sanbo, his first girlfriend in America, who broke his heart. Hearing about a Bruce who was heartbroken and vulnerable, trying to find his way—you just don’t think of Bruce Lee that way. She talked about how he was a little awkward romantically and kind of nerdy. And from that perspective, you see how people adapt and change and transform. Bruce Lee wasn't born this great martial artist; he wasn't the Dragon right away. It required a lot of reflection, introspection, and struggle for him to become that.

Speaking to Amy was really enlightening. She’s Japanese-American, and was held in an internment camp when she was really young. During Bruce’s first couple of years in America, he felt lost between his Hong Kong side and the new identity he was trying to form as an American. Amy was the one who showed him the beauty and power of being Asian-American, and that resonated with him and informed him for the rest of his life. Even though he was very clearly against people judging him [from the outside], she taught him he had the power and the capacity to find his own identity, and to be proud of that identity within himself.

Bruce was also a student of everyone he met. He’s known as this great teacher of Jeet Kune Do, but he was always listening and learning. The first student he had in Seattle, Jesse Glover, was an African-American man who was a victim of police brutality. He wanted to learn martial arts to defend himself against future incidents like that, and that informed Bruce’s views on the racial inequity of America quite early on. Later, when Bruce trained Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem taught him about the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements. All of these things help us to understand the philosophy of Bruce Lee a little better. He was open to teaching people of different races and different nationalities. He didn't judge people on what they looked like or where they came from, but who they were and what they brought as people.

What did you learn about yourself over that half-decade?

I’ve learned a lot. I was always a huge advocate for representation on screen and behind the camera, but seeing someone as magnetic as Bruce Lee struggle to make it in Hollywood really hammered home how deeply systemic racism runs in our culture. The images that we see on screen are how people treat us in society, and how people treat us in society is reflected on screen. It’s a vicious cycle, and we need to find ways to break that cycle.

At first, it felt like a huge responsibility to tell the story of arguably the most iconic Asian-American of the 20th century. But I started seeing it more as a privilege that I've been given—this opportunity to tell Bruce's story, and tell it in the way that I wanted to tell it. And that's a lesson learned about the importance of being able to tell our own stories and owning our own stories as people of color, as people on the margins, and not having someone else tell us what we should be or can be on screen. It's so important to have these multifaceted portrayals, because while it was great seeing myself in Bruce Lee, you can argue that it's even greater that other people from different backgrounds see an Asian hero. A conversation about representation isn't about a trend or just about pay equity, it's about how we are seen.

I spoke to Alan Yang recently about this unprecedented moment for Asian-American representation, with movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell breaking through. He was quick to point out that while, yes, it’s great that we finally have a few films out there getting some attention, it’s only a start. There are still so many other kinds of movies we haven’t seen Asians star in or make yet.

Randall Park said something funny to me. When he saw Bruce Lee, he saw a hero, and he felt like he could do anything. He's like, "This is what white people must feel all the time, right?"

Obviously things have progressed. I've been working in the industry for about 10 years now. I remember screening my work at film festivals, and I would meet just a handful of other Asian-American creators. Nearly all of them still had day jobs, and they were doing film as a side thing. But lately, at those same festivals, I’ve met more people actually doing this as their full-time careers, and they're inspired by the people who made it before them. We all stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us.

People like Bruce Lee and Lucy Liu made strides so that people like me could tell stories about [our] experiences. But it’s important that we aren’t just the gatekeepers of our own experiences, and that we’re allowed to create different experiences in different environments. Ocean Vuong recently spoke about how artists of color are often expected to make memoirs—rather than build new worlds, they’re expected to be tour guides to bring mainstream culture into their world. That’s starting to change, and I think that’s the next chapter.

Taika Waititi is a friend of mine, and I think what he’s doing is really amazing: he’s using his distinct voice to push this new mythology that looks different from what we’re used to seeing. When you look at British mythology, for example, King Arthur is held up as this heroic myth, and that’s why many people think of British society as civil and noble. We don’t have our King Arthur story yet. There’s obviously a lot of Asian mythologies, but we’re still looking for that Asian-American mythology.

Bruce Lee filled that void for a bit, for better or worse—we don’t all want to be known as martial artists, but at least it was positive. Now it’s all about being multi-faceted, not being seen as a monolith, and being able to tell any story that we want to tell, be it positive or negative. Because if we're just pushing positive portrayals, then we fall into the model minority myth all over again.

Last week, one of my colleagues published an interview with several Hong Kong activists, who shared some of their strategies for protesting. “Be Water” has become a rallying cry and organizational principle for many of them. How do you think Bruce would feel about his words being used to inspire strength and resistance in protests across the globe?

I think he would've been flattered and happy, because he was always trying to be a voice for the marginalized, the underrepresented, the underdog. If you watch his films—especially his first few films—he's fighting for workers’ rights in The Big Boss, and in Fists of Fury, he's speaking out against colonialism. These themes are not coincidental: they're very much informed by his upbringing in Hong Kong, witnessing the inferior treatment of native Hong Kongers under British colonialism and learning about the Japanese occupation in school.

When he got to Seattle, a very diverse community, he saw how people were treated differently and how he could right some of that. Then he moved to Oakland—not San Francisco, which is an important distinction, because they're two very different types of cities, especially in the 1960s. And then he came to LA in 1966, a year after the Watts riots, so there was surely a lot of simmering tension. [All through those experiences,] he always understood the power of his own voice, the power of speaking up. On Green Hornet, he spoke up about pay equity and not having enough lines, when most actors would just be happy to get a paycheck. And then going into Enter the Dragon, when people saw him as difficult, he just wanted his voice, his lines, his philosophy to be part of the film.

Sometimes, Asian-Americans and people of color are not allowed to be seen for their potential. We have to own up to ourselves so much more than other people. And when we start to own up to our potential, we are seen as arrogant and not being in our place. Bruce Lee is this great example of someone who walked that fine line of some people thinking he's arrogant, versus him thinking of himself as confident. What a lot of people who knew him say is: “He said a lot of things, but he always backed it up.” It’s backing it up that's important.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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