ESPN's Bruce Lee '30 for 30,' 'Be Water,' shows how much racism stole from him and audiences

Lee’s talent should've earned him lead roles in Hollywood. But an industry that regularly put white actors in yellowface wouldn't invest in an Asian actor.
Image: Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon"Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file
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By Nadra Nittle

Be Water,” ESPN’s “30 for 30” docuseries entry on Bruce Lee and the sophomore effort of director Bao Nguyen (“Live From New York!”), leaves no doubt that Lee’s talent and charisma should have earned him lead roles in Hollywood — or how the industry’s history of marginalizing people of color relegated him to playing sidekicks.

The film opens with archival footage of a young Lee performing martial arts moves during a screen test. Calm and collected in front of the camera — and amazingly nimble in a suit and tie — he captivates the studio executives dispatched to see if he has star quality. But to become a leading man in the U.S., Lee would still have to achieve superstardom abroad first.

Airing Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, “Be Water” — which takes its name from Lee’s observation that water is soft but capable of penetrating the hardest substance — provides much needed context about Lee’s Hollywood struggles, including commentary from his daughter, Shannon Lee; widow, Linda Lee Cadwell; brother, Robert Lee; and friends such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Inosanto. The “Be Water” debut underscores how Hollywood still questions that movies starring Asian Americans are marketable, given that it is one of only three American movies about Lee’s life since the 1993 biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” (the third was the 2016 flop "Birth of the Dragon"), despite Lee's status as an icon nearly 50 years after his death.

The documentary posits that the racism Lee encountered in Hollywood reflected the racism in America as a whole and that, born in San Francisco in 1940 and raised in Hong Kong, Lee didn’t understand U.S. racial dynamics when he returned to the country at 18.

Then, as a University of Washington student, his friend circle included whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans. He dated Amy Sanbo, a proud Japanese American who told him how the federal government forced her family into internment camps during World War II — history that dovetailed with Lee's own understanding of 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first U.S. immigration law to completely ban an ethnic group. Viewers who know their American history won’t learn anything new from this exploration of his growing awareness of xenophobia, but for Lee fans unfamiliar with it, this part of the film should help explain the blatant discrimination he faced in Hollywood despite his obvious expertise and magnetism.

(That discrimination persists to this day: His depiction in 2019's "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" suggests a white stunt man could've repeatedly beaten him up, which was clearly not the case. But Lee’s portrayal in Quentin Tarantino's award-winning film served to put white audiences at ease, as usual.)

“Be Water” also shows how, as a young man, Lee took an interest in the burgeoning civil rights movement. And, although U.S. society was segregated at the time and many private facilities reflected those divisions, the martial arts studio Lee opened was not; his first student was a black man named Jesse Glover. The racial unrest spreading across the country, however, made Lee fear for America’s future (a concern now widely shared in 2020).

Having studied Wing Chun kung fu as a teen in Hong Kong, where he’d also been a child actor, the adult Lee set out to educate Americans about Chinese culture by opening a chain of martial arts schools. An appearance at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships would change his plans. Impressed with Lee’s demonstration at the event, a celebrity hairdresser suggested a film producer client check him out, the first of several fateful steps that ended with him landing the role of Kato for the first and only season of ABC’s “The Green Hornet,” about a masked crimefighter and his martial artist sidekick, in 1966.

The TV show should have been Lee’s big break, but the showrunners gave Lee few lines and the studio paid him roughly five times less than the show’s star. (An industry that had no problem putting white actors like Mickey Rooney, John Wayne and Marlon Brando in yellowface predictably refused to invest in an actual Asian actor.)

When the network canceled “The Green Hornet” after that first season, Lee — who had married Linda Emery, a white former student, defying stereotypes of both that era and this one — fell into a depression. His acting work soon dried up because he refused to play parts that demeaned Asians, and few were offered to him that didn’t. Accordingly, he earned money to support his family — which by then included a son, Brandon — by teaching martial arts to stars like Steve McQueen (the period Tarantino inaccurately depicted in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood").

Ultimately, Lee decided that, if he were to make it in the industry, he’d have to create his own roles, and when he pitched a show about a Shaolin monk, TV executives loved it — but they wanted a white man, David Carradine, to play the lead. Linda Lee Caldwell said the news devastated him and, dejected but determined, Lee returned to Hong Kong to seek the film work Hollywood wouldn't give him. There he starred in a string of international hits, among them 1971’s “The Big Boss” and 1972’s “Fist of Fury.” His successes abroad meant Lee finally had enough star power to make Hollywood studio execs take him seriously as a leading man, and he started production on what would be his one and only leading role in a U.S. picture: "Enter the Dragon."

But shortly after wrapping the flick, Lee suddenly died on July 20, 1973, after taking a painkiller, Equagesic, for a headache. Dying at age 32 meant he didn’t live to see “Enter the Dragon” premiere on Aug. 19, 1973 — or his own cult status in the United States.

If “Be Water” has a notable flaw, it’s that the film avoids the unflattering aspects of Lee’s character. References to Lee's alleged juvenile delinquency in Hong Kong, a clip of him admitting he wasn’t a saint and friends recalling that he could sometimes be an “a------” spare it from becoming hagiography, but “Be Water” provides few details about why the martial artist was supposedly a difficult personality. And the rare example the film does offer — that Lee held up production of “Enter the Dragon” because early versions of the script lacked substance — reveals that he’d justifiably caused trouble. Thanks to his efforts, the martial arts blockbuster, Warner Brothers’ top-grossing film globally in 1973, contains scenes about Eastern philosophy and not only dazzling fights and comely women.

Given that the “30 for 30” docuseries has consistently laid bare at least some of the sins of the world’s greatest athletes (most recently Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance” and Lance Armstrong in “Lance”) it’s clear that “Be Water” is more interested in discussing Lee’s strengths than any of his weaknesses. It mentions that he died in the Hong Kong apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei but leaves out that the two were reportedly having an extramarital affair (which his widow still denies). But Lee’s fans don’t need him to be perfect: He leaves behind a powerful legacy that remains inspirational — from enrolling students of all ethnic backgrounds in his martial arts school to his valiant efforts to improve Asian representation in Hollywood.

The martial artist couldn’t fight his way out of systemic racism, but he paved the way, along with trailblazers like James Shigeta and Anna May Wong, for a number of actors — including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Cho, Ming-Na Wen, Lucy Liu and Constance Wu — to land starring roles in Tinseltown in the decades after his death.

But Asian and Asian American actors are still fighting for representation, scoring just 1 percent of leading roles in U.S. entertainment, according to the University of Southern California. Hollywood might hesitate to make stars of nonwhite actors, but Lee doggedly followed his own advice: “To be always yourself, and to express yourself, to have faith in yourself.” When Americans of color are taught in both trivial and substantial ways that our lives don’t matter, Bruce Lee's message and life story still resonate today.