Half a century after his death, Bruce Lee remains a symbol of physical strength and masculinity for the Asian community and an icon of cinema in the 20th century. But his daughter says there’s more to his legacy that deserves to be acknowledged.
Shannon Lee, who was 4 years old when her father died in 1973, said he rejected toxic, traditional ideas of masculinity, instead placing value on expressing emotion. As she reflects on her father’s life on the 50th anniversary of his death Thursday, Lee said she hopes others will recognize how Bruce Lee defined strength: as vulnerability.
“As masculine as he appeared physically, through the amount of strength and action of martial arts, there is actually a very inherent sort of softening of his masculinity that I think gets overlooked,” said Lee, who’s an executive producer on HBO’s “Warrior.” “He advocated for really showing up, really being present.”
Bruce Lee, who died in Hong Kong at age 32, has largely been credited with popularizing martial arts in the West, introducing the art form to new cultures and across color lines, as well as bringing it to the big screen in films like “Enter the Dragon.”
But for the Asian American community, he was seen as a resistance hero, challenging stubborn stereotypes around Asian men, who were often portrayed as weak, emasculated and deferential. However, Shannon Lee said, it was really her father’s emotional intelligence that made him a trailblazer.
“We have a letter where he wrote to the head of this studio and he says, ‘Listen, I want to deliver you the most amazing action film, but you have to give me not just your head but your heart,’” she said.
She said that since her father’s death, some have defaulted to a view of him that she sees as “patriarchal.” In Quentin Tarantino’s controversial 2021 film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” Bruce Lee is portrayed as an arrogant, competitive character, a depiction that got significant backlash.
“His portrayal of my father was this masculine fighter guy. ‘So he must have been an a–hole. And he must have been arrogant. He must not have been sort of a vulnerable human being,’” Lee said of Tarantino. “Honestly, he didn’t believe in competition. … He didn’t believe it was a good model for personal excellence and personal growth, because you’re always pitting yourself against someone else.”
Tarantino doubled down on his interpretation at the time, telling critics who took issue with it to “suck a d---” on an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Lee said her father, rather, emphasized collaboration. It’s why, she said, he believed in making martial arts more inclusive, often risking judgment to do so.
Throughout his career, Bruce Lee accepted students from across a variety of backgrounds; one of his first students was Jesse Glover, a Black man who would go on to be his first assistant instructor in the U.S. Glover, a victim of police brutality, had taken up martial arts as self-defense. Bruce Lee’s highly publicized friendship with NBA legend and civil rights advocate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also became a symbol of solidarity and allyship across communities.
“I go back to my father’s quote: ‘Under the sun and the heavens, there’s one family. There’s one human family,’” Shannon Lee said.
“He did things that were looked down upon at the time, like teaching Chinese kung fu to non-Chinese,” she said. “But it was something he felt — ‘I want to share what I love with people who don’t have a connection to. Then I have to share it with people.’”
As open and vulnerable as he was, Bruce Lee was also firm in his boundaries, his daughter said. He refused to accept unequal treatment or take on roles that would harm Asian Americans in Hollywood, she said.
“When the systems weren’t allowing him to take those steps forward, he was like, ‘OK, gotta find a different way,’” she said. “That takes an incredible amount of inner strength.”
Over the years, Bruce Lee has remained something of a fixture in pop culture. And Shannon Lee said many have tried to dissect the events that led him to walk his own unique path or “find the wound” that motivated him. But ultimately, her father operated with a happiness and a pride for his culture — one that didn’t need to be cosigned by white, mainstream approval. And that’s what makes his legacy so profound, she said.
“He represented Asian joy, you know, because he was very proud to be Chinese, and he was very proud of what he could do, and he wanted to share it. He wanted to celebrate it,” she said. “He took those things about him that were different and unique and turned them into superpowers of his, because he loved them.”