It’s easy to inadvertently neglect the fact that Bruce Lee was excluded by Hollywood and disallowed to be the male lead of a film or TV show in the 1960s and early ‘70s because he’s remembered as an iconic figure who is revered in the modern-day. Bruce Lee didn’t want to be the typical Asian male on the American silver screen; he wanted to be the star, the leading actor, the protagonist, the hero. The one who overcomes difficulties in life and succeeds in the end. The documentary Be Water, directed by Bao Nguyen, the Award-winning Vietnamese filmmaker, delves into the dual world stardom and superstardom of the legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee. The film studies how Bruce Lee strove to develop his identity as a Chinese/American from San Francisco to Hong Kong and back. The documentary reveals a unique collection of recorded material from Bruce Lee’s life juxtaposed with audio commentary from family members and friends. This is a refreshing tactic employed by the director, since most documentaries show interviews of the person’s face, sitting in a chair while giving commentary. Bao Nguyen is fully aware that by doing that he’s taking the focus of the audience away from its subject and making it about the people who remembered it. In this case, our subject is Bruce Lee from beginning to end.
We learn a lot about Bruce Lee, almost from his own perspective, had he still been alive today. Bruce Lee was against the behemoth of discrimination, prejudice and intolerance of Asians in the United States, let alone Hollywood. We learn that his great pursuit of acting in movies in addition to opening Martial Arts schools throughout the United States to teach Kung Fu wasn’t based off of naivete but confidence in his own abilities. The documentary reminds us that he was constantly rejected by Hollywood and returned to Hong Kong in 1971 to make four films: The Big Boss (1971), The Way of the Dragon (1972), Fists of Fury (1972), Game of Death (1972) until finally gaining the recognition he deserved from Hollywood with the Enter the Dragon (1973), a film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Bruce Lee strove to prove to Hollywood that he was an Action hero just like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. He amplified his efforts with highly choregraphed fight-sequences on Fists of Fury after The Big Boss became a hit in Hong Kong. He was on a relentless mission to prove to Hollywood and the world that he was an extraordinary human being who deserved to be seen and heard.
The documentary delves into the role China has had in its history with the United States in terms of labor in the workforce, in addition to the development of his first martial arts school in Seattle from 1963, his marriage with Linda Lee Cadwell and their first date at the Space Needle, as well as his great desires to launch Kung Fu martial arts schools across the United States. The film even touches on the role of China in American history with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the blatant ban on one group of people. Hollywood treated Asians in racist ways and would cast Caucasians to portray Asians in films and TV shows when Bruce was readily available and yearning. John Wayne played the Mongol vanquisher Genghis Khan, in The Conqueror (1965) and David Carradine played a Martial Arts master in Kung Fu (1972). Not only were the characters of Asians stolen by Caucasian men, if an Asian male was cast in a Hollywood film, they couldn’t kiss a white woman on-screen.
Though Bruce Lee was ultimately rejected by Hollywood for heroic roles, he wasn’t completely cast out. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Jay Sebring, a movie hair-dresser, was impressed by Bruce Lee in an exhibition for martial arts and thereafter, Bruce Lee got a call from a producer. He landed the part of Kato in The Green Hornet (1966) playing the Asian sidekick/assistant of the green hornet (Van Williams). Even though Bruce Lee was the supporting actor, he was treated and paid as an extra. Bruce Lee’s collaboration and connection to the late Sharon Tate, when he worked as the Karate Advisor for The Wrecking Crew (1968), is also mentioned, in addition to his training of classic actors like James Coburn, Steve McQueen and the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on the martial art of Jeet Kune Do – the way of intercepting the fist, or foot.
When Bruce Lee realized his success in Hollywood wasn’t going to be through the parts he was auditioning for, he wrote his own roles and created his own projects. He was a face of a nation and the face of a people. His wisdom and creativity are reasons why he’s arguably the father of what we refer to as modern day mixed-martial arts represented predominantly by organizations like the UFC and Bellator. The documentary discusses reason why Hollywood is racist is because the industry is a product of America who are the real racists. Bruce Lee was disgusted by Hollywood after his rejection on the television show Kung Fu, a role that went to the Caucasian actor David Carradine. Bruce Lee knew he was the perfect portrayal for that role and readily available to play it, but because of systemic racism, he was disallowed.
Be Water is an excellent documentary that shows archive footage from the iconic battle, Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris, at the coliseum in Rome from The Way of the Dragon and the climactic fight scene in Game of Death with Kareem Abdul Jabbar – a film that was ultimately never accurately completed. Nonetheless, Hollywood began to see the true value that Bruce Lee had to offer, which led to Enter the Dragon, the quintessential Martial Arts film. Be Water gives justice to Bruce Lee and truly depicts the legend with an accurate portrayal of who he was. Bruce Lee knew himself. There was an integrity to his humanity; he was comfortable in his own skin. He understood that 60% of the human body and 75% of the human brain was made up of water. “When you fill a cup with water, the water becomes the cup. It becomes the bottle. It becomes the kettle. Water can flow. Or it can crash. Be water my friend.”