Bruce Lee: American Hero

‘Be Water’: a magnificent ESPN documentary that puts the dragon in the context of his times

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Be Water is about Bruce Lee as the embodiment of the American Dream: someone who literally writes the script of their own story. He became a legend in his lifetime, before becoming mythical upon his early death, aged 32 in 1973. He was an unprecedented global pop culture phenomenon. Then with the legacy of his son, Brandon, dying while filming his own starring role in a movie, the family became shrouded in mystery, purportedly cursed for revealing the secrets of the martial arts to non-Asians.


Presumably everyone watching this show will know the basics. They might not be aware of the details. Born in America but brought up in colonial Hong Kong with relations who were wealthy and in show business, Lee was in fact Eurasian (“mid-Pacific” as Cary Grant was “trans-Atlantic”), having a German grandparent (who also may have been Jewish according to the latest biography). Among his leading disciples was student number one, Jesse Glover, an African American who carried on his teaching. Hollywood cast as Kato the servant to TV’s Green Hornet. But he yearned to, and eventually became, a producer, director, writer, and lead in films such as Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon. He was briefly a suspect in the Sharon Tate murder carried out by the Manson family.

Then David Carradine, a Caucasian dancer, beat out Lee for the TV series Kung Fu after Lee developed the concept. Lee decamped to Hong Kong, and he transcended racial limits there. The posthumous release Enter the Dragon made the equivalent of a half billion dollars.

The documentary is about much more than an individual. Shanlon Wu (no relation to me) published a New York Times Sunday magazine essay more than a generation ago about searching for Bruce Lee. It told a similar story. People who believe they are unique share common experiences. People challenge men of East Asian descent who grow up in America—whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or, as in the case of the filmmaker, Vietnamese—to kung fu fights as a kid. It keeps happening when you’re an adult, too, whether comically or menacingly. Be Water also puts Lee in the context of his times. JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali make cameos (in a great homage to footwork in bouts), raising civil rights and “the Black Liberation movement.”

Even as heroic as Bruce Lee was, people ridiculed those who looked like him. Imitation is the sincerest form of mockery. You could reduce the virility of Lee, with his two finger push ups and one inch punches, to a stereotype. Howling and hissing, chanting “Ching Chong” this and that, pranksters have mastered the common cruelty of childhood, bullying those with straight black hair, almond shaped eyes, and yellow skin.

Yet there were no tough guys before Bruce Lee who looked like Bruce Lee. He embraced working the “core” before trainers in gyms started calling it that. No one could improve upon the muscle to fat ratio of his body. Doubters should be impressed by the grainy black and white snippets that are not fake news.

This 30 for 30 entry has great archival footage, including of Lee’s funeral services. There isn’t anything available about Lee with the extensive range of primary sources, including an interview with an early girlfriend, Japanese American, talking about the World War II internment camps. The Ip Man trained him. He exceeded all expectations in an iconic yellow jumpsuit.

This movie couldn’t be easier to recommend. Any fan of Lee will love it. Anyone curious about Lee will be interested in it. Despite the serious subject matter, which includes an appropriate heavy dose of depicted racism, there is ample humor. Among the ironies, for example, is how Lee, a juvenile delinquent, returned to where he was really from, America, to avoid being rounded up by the local police.

Two prior efforts pale in comparison. Dragon, the 1993 biopic with Jason Scott Lee, isn’t bad. Birth of the Dragon, the 2016 feature emphasizing the infamous bout against Wong Jack Man in the San Francisco Bay Area, suffers from the focus on a white protagonist, whom Lee instructs. ESPN deserves credit. They take on the issues in the background of sport. They’ve invested effort without pulling punches.

Presumably Lee’s family approved this film. His widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and his daughter, who was only four years old when he passed away, provide much of the narrative. The format works here. If they had been talking heads, rather than the voiceovers, they would have distracted from rather than enhanced the footage.

Everyone involved in this project deserves praise. The researcher and the editor earn standing ovations though. They’ve given their subject the gravitas of a PBS series.

The title refers to Buddhist philosophy that Lee explicates: the flow of fluids with the power to overcome obstacles. This is a memorial befitting a giant, a fitting elegy. For Bruce Lee was such a figure, beyond all proportion.

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Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and the President Designate of Queens College. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

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