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30 for 30: Be Water Review – ESPN’s Bruce Lee Documentary

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I’ve only recently started thinking about Bruce Lee in my effort to grapple with the role of Asian Americans in media, and in the United States. But the problem with larger-than-life icons, like Lee, is that the more influential they are, the bigger the ripples they create in the pond, the harder it is to get close and find out who they were as an actual person.In director Bao Nguyen’s 30 for 30 ESPN documentary, Be Water, Nguyen dives deeper than anyone’s gotten previously to who Lee was before icon status. Nguyen accomplishes this by gaining access to the people closest to Lee, including his widow Linda Lee Cadwell, and daughter Shannon Lee. And while Nguyen succeeds in telling a complete and compelling story of Lee’s tragically short life, I still find the man at the center of it all an enigma.
Bruce Lee has achieved a pop-culture ascension reserved for only a handful of celebrities. His face is instantly recognizable, as anyone who plays fighting games knows that there’s a bevy of characters who are straight-up Bruce Lee clones. Even the black and yellow colorway is associated with Lee. How many movie stars can claim a color combination?

For Asian Americans, who are told we all look alike, this is a rare achievement and, in a sad way, could alone make the case for why Bruce Lee can be considered the most successful Asian American movie star.

However, as Be Water shows, Bruce Lee didn’t ascend on his good looks alone. Ever since a young age, Lee demonstrated a preternatural knack for show business. The son of Cantonese opera singer Lee Hoi-Chuen, Lee was already familiar with the Hong Kong film industry, appearing in several Hong Kong films in his youth and teens.Rather than having a traditional narration like in other documentaries, Nguyen uses video footage from Lee’s home and the movies he’s appeared in, written diary entries and letters by Lee himself, and voice-overs from his close friends and family to tell audiences who Lee was as a person. But I found the narration from friends and family to be too reverent and distant to offer true insight into Lee as a person.

The documentary follows Lee as he’s sent to the United States at the age of 18 in the hopes that it would mellow out the troubled youth who was at risk of falling in with gangs back in Hong Kong. From there the documentary follows Lee as his ambitions grow, first from opening a series of kung-fu studios across the country to eventually TV and movie stardom.

What’s immediately clear is how naturally talented Lee is. It takes a lot of charisma for an 18-year-old to arrive fresh in America and quickly gain a following of students who want to learn Gung-fu from him. His early dream of starting up hundreds of martial arts schools across the United States speaks to how Lee viewed himself as a leader and teacher to others.Highlighting Lee’s natural abilities from a young age leads Be Water into its best segment: Lee’s brush with Hollywood and white TV executives. Despite impressing TV producers with his martial arts and camera presence, Lee’s early Hollywood days were mostly a wash.

He had a one-season role as Kato, the butler/driver martial artist in The Green Hornet. In one of the clearest examples Nguyen provides of how Hollywood under-appreciated Lee, it’s revealed he was one of the lowest-paid actors on the show he effectively co-starred in. The rest of his Hollywood tenure was mostly spent doing guest roles in shows like Batman, Ironside, and Longstreet.

Be Water’s strongest argument, and the one that humanizes Bruce Lee more than anything else in the documentary, is this early Hollywood adventure. Lee was someone who was aware of how naturally gifted he was, which made his treatment at the hands of white Hollywood all the more frustrating. A once in a generation talent not given the chance to thrive because of his accent and the color of his skin.

The documentary shares a quote from Lee after he was rejected for a lead role in a show he pitched (which was rumored to be taken and turned into the show Kung-Fu starring David Carradine). He wrote, “You can’t win them all, but I’m gonna win one of these days.” It’s the closest we get to hear Lee dejected.

Less successful are Be Water’s attempts to tie Bruce Lee into the broader Civil Rights movement happening during the ’60s, the same time Lee was making his way through Hollywood. Despite splicing in footage of Mohammad Ali and testimonials from friends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about Lee’s “awareness” of the Civil Rights movement, Nguyen can’t quite make the connection strong enough.

A scene towards the end of the documentary cuts together one of Ali’s boxing matches with Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. While it’s shot beautifully, the scene doesn’t actually make the argument that Lee is a similar champion of Civil Rights as Ali was.

But Lee was aware of race, specifically his race, and how Asians are stereotyped in white society. When he was a college student in Seattle, his first girlfriend Amy Sanbo shared how Lee and his black and white friends would swap girlfriends when going out, just to see how people would react. There’s a glimpse of race consciousness in Sanbo’s story, and how Lee must have been aware that he would turn heads if as an Asian man he was seen with a black or white girlfriend. But like his ties to the Civil Rights movement, that facet is never expanded upon.

If I seem like I’m using approximate language to describe Lee, that’s because in the end I still only have approximate knowledge of him as a person. The gaping hole at the center of Be Water is Lee himself, who died at the age of 32 due to cerebral edema.

Were he alive today I can only imagine he would be eager to share his thoughts on the world, on the Asian American experience, and his life. He clearly relished any opportunity to wax philosophical. What kind of insight could Lee share, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States?

As I said previously, I haven’t thought about Lee until just recently. I watched Be Water hoping to gain a better understanding about Bruce Lee as a person. And while I appreciate the insight into his history and philosophy from people closest to him, like Linda and Shannon, the documentary focuses more on Lee the icon while keeping Lee the person at a distance.

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