What would Bruce Lee say now?
Years before the groundbreaking Enter the Dragon—and his death just a month before its premiere—Lee was barely of legal drinking age in Seattle, writing letters to himself and the people he loved, learning what it meant to be any color other than white in America.
“The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism, are traditions which are nothing more than a formula that was laid down by elder peoples experience,” . “As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula. I, Bruce Lee, am a man who never follows these formulas of the fear mongers. So no matter if your color is black, or white, red or blue, I can still make friends with you without any barrier.”
Be Water, ESPN’s 30 for 30 about the martial arts legend that debuts this Sunday night, shelves the myth of Bruce Lee. It's the one we all know: The guy who could kick anyone’s ass, make two-fingered push-ups look easy, and taught Steve McQueen a couple moves. The persona that's riffed upon endlessly—most recently his much-criticized depiction in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Instead, the director of Be Waterim电竞官网-, Bao Nguyen, put together a portrait of someone entirely different, and too often overlooked. Through Lee’s letters and interviews with his friends and family—including his wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, and daughter, Shannon Lee—Nguyen shows the man who came of age in America during a time painfully similar to ours. Protests, hatred, the deaths of minorities at the hands of white police.
Lee was a civil rights leader. Before he was world-famous, he was teaching martial arts to those who needed to defend themselves the most. His first student was , who sought Lee's help after becoming a victim of police brutality. Later on, Lee was on TV, telling interviewers prodding about his racial idenity: "You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being." If he was alive today, Lee might have taken a role similar to that of his close friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, penning essays, comforting those grieving during a week of mass protests following the murder of another black man by a white police officer. For now, we can only remember Lee, read his letters, and watch the films he gave us—his ultimate protest.
Before Be Water’s premiere, we talked to Nguyen and Shannon Lee about Bruce’s legacy—and what he might have said today.
ESQUIRE: Shannon, some of the most beautiful parts in the documentary are when you read the letters your father wrote. Which one do you find yourself reading most often?
Shannon Lee:im电竞官网- One for sure that I find myself going back to often is the that my father wrote when he was 21. I just find it so special and emphatic. And his description of his vision and his sense of inner vitality—it's a very special, special letter. And it's definitely one I go back to from time to time because I just sort of marvel at his clarity—his clarity of purpose. But also, his clarity of his inner world and his sense that he has some sort of personal power that he gets to command in his life. It's really special.
ESQ: That's something I didn't know before watching the documentary— how beautiful of a writer he was.
SL: It's funny, my mom used to say that my dad, who—English was his second language— was so committed whenever he wanted to study something or learn something [that] he wanted to do it all the way. He wanted to do it to the best of his ability. And she used to say when they were in school together at the University of Washington that my father would help her with her English papers. He was such a great writer. Beautifully expressive.
ESQ: Bao, you were able to visit Bruce's personal archives for this. Could you tell the story when you went there for the first time and what that meant to you?
Bao Nguyen: It was due to the family’s graciousness, for them to open their lives up to me. Because the story I wanted to tell is a bit more personal, and reflects the kind of biome experience as an Asian-American, and I think a lot of other Asian-Americans. I just remember going into the room and looking through the photographs, the letters. He wrote really beautifully in terms of his handwriting, not just his words, and the care he took in writing drafts. You see someone scratch something off in their writing, like you're really seeing the editing process. As an artist, seeing someone like Bruce Lee and his process was just awe-inspiring. The introspective side of Bruce Lee that we're not used to seeing, particularly in my generation where Bruce Lee has become such an icon, a myth. Sometimes we forget him as a person and the struggles and the journeys he had to go through for Bruce to become Bruce Lee.
ESQ: Bruce was an inspiration to you growing up?
BN: Yeah, it happens too often to many of us that we're not used to seeing heroes that look like us on the screen. For the most part, when I saw an Asian, Asian-American depicted on television or film, it was usually a negative portrayal. It was a bumbling servant, a heavily-accented sidekick, or a villain in many ways. So I remember when I first saw Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragonim电竞官网- I was eight or nine years old, and I was just amazed to see someone that was Asian being a hero, playing the leading man. Ever since then, he's always been this symbol of representation, of empowerment to me and so many others.
ESQ: What surprised you about him during your research?
BN:im电竞官网- One funny story is he would have a weight in one hand, and a sandwich in the other? [Laughs] So he was always multitasking. But we think of Bruce Lee as a great teacher for students in America, in Seattle and Oakland and then in Los Angeles with Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But what I really took away is how much he was a student of America and all the people that he came across, especially Jesse Glover. It's relevant today that Jesse Glover, his first student, was a victim of police brutality. I think that experience really informed Bruce, and what it means to being judged on the color of your skin. So I really think it formed his philosophy for the rest of his life of how he was open to teaching all different races, and he himself was facing so much discrimination. So I think those two aspects converged and just an open-minded person and trying to be really allies of people all around you. I think it's really timely for today's moment.
ESQ: Exactly—the documentary shows how Bruce was affected by the civil rights movement, and the youth movement in Hong Kong. Is there anything from Bruce's story that can help us right now?
SL: I've been asked in the last few days: What do you think your father would be doing right now? I think he would absolutely be standing with the African-American community. He did not believe in injustice, and bullies, and superiority complexes. He wrote about it a lot—his writings about how we have to get past so many of the horrible attitudes, and traditions, and systems that are plaguing us right now. And that we really need to be open to change and be in support of our fellow humans.
BN: Yeah, I was just going to add his philosophy of being water, the title of the film Be Water. I think the title is a metaphor for America—that we're an ever-evolving experiment, that we're not a stagnant country. We're a young country where people like Bruce come in and bring their own attributes, or culture, and it becomes part of American culture in a beautiful way. There's these different rocks in our history that we kind of get around, from the Chinese Exclusion Act, to racial inequalities in the 1960s, up until what's going on today. I see what's going on with George Floyd—racial injustice as very much a rock. We're crashing against that rock. Hopefully as a community, we can find our way around it. We can keep moving forward.
ESQ: In a way, watching the documentary feels like hearing Bruce talk right now, especially without any talking heads in the film, keeping it all in the present.
BN:im电竞官网- Yeah, I think I really wanted to feel as much that we were living and breathing in Bruce Lee's time, his present moment, and not necessarily have to cut back to the modern time as much in a talking-head interview shot. And I mean it's scary, you see those images [of civil rights protests] and it's still so reminiscent of what's going on all over our country today.
ESQ: You visited some of the places that Bruce went to—was the filming of the movie a personal journey for you too?
BN: For sure. I think there's a heavy burden and responsibility as a filmmaker, especially as an Asian-American filmmaker to make a film about the greatest Asian-American icon of our time. I kind of transitioned that burden, responsibility and really thought of it more as a privilege that I get to tell his story. For me, it's not a definitive film. There's no such thing as a definitive documentary about any subject. But I wanted to make it as personal to my experience. And through that kind of voice, there's a sense of honesty and authenticity that comes out—that people feel like: Okay, this is Bao's film about Bruce Lee.
ESQ: Right, and especially with how ESPN has strung The Last Dance, Lance, and now Be Water together. I feel that’s what we’ve missed—a film that doesn't set out to be a defining thing.
BN: I think that's why conversations about inclusion and representation are so important. It's not a trend. I hope we're having this conversation still—40-plus years after Bruce Lee had these struggles in Hollywood—I think it's important today to continue that fight of representation. I take that responsibility very seriously because I know for the most part there aren't that many representations of Asian-Americans, Asians on screen, so I always want to make sure that we're shown in a multi-faceted way and not through a very narrow lens.
ESQ: There's the line in the documentary, “Hollywood's racist because America's racist.”
BN: That's Jeff Chang, he's a cultural critic.
ESQ: Like he said, obviously both Hollywood and America haven't come far enough in the 50 years after Enter The Dragon was released. But what has changed? Where is Bruce’s influence being felt in Hollywood?
BN: Without Bruce Lee, it would be hard for many Asian Americans or Asians to have any sense of hope. Even to this day, Bruce is still the most prominent Asian-American face on screen, and he hasn't made a film in 40 plus years. I think today, we see signs of progress. There's a lot more content-makers and people on screen, as evidenced by Warrior, which is a great series that Shannon is a part of. I saw an advanced screening of the series premiere. I was blown away because it's a drama series where 80 percent, 90 percent of the people on screen are Asian, and I haven't seen that my whole life. It's just mind blowing. I got teary-eyed because it shows progress. Obviously there's still a lot of work to be done. But when there is progress being made, we have to celebrate it, and we have to keep fighting for it. I think beyond just on-screen presence and behind the camera—people who are green-lighting projects, we need diversity and inclusion in those roles, too. Because they are the gatekeepers, right?
SL: I couldn't agree more. I obviously know we're in a moment right now where there's been some progress and more voices are being heard on the subject matter. But there's still a long way to go. There's still a lot of challenge in making these changes and I think what Jeff Chang said is right. Hollywood is just a reflection of society, and so there's a lot of changes that need to happen in society. And it is in part about changing these systems, but it's also about opening up dialogue and not being in this place of needing to break others down in order to be okay. We need to stop with this scarcity mentality and understand that there's room for everyone. I think Hollywood is starting to see that there are audiences for these stories, and in some ways there are more audiences for these stories than there are for the traditional stories that they've been telling.
ESQ: Shannon, what did it mean for you to kind of trust Bao with this story? I'm thinking about Once Upon a Time In Hollywood—if you look at the portrayal there, and what we see of Bruce here, they could not seem more far off in comparison.
SL:im电竞官网- Yeah, thank you. You know, it was actually very easy for me to trust Bao. I will say, we've known each other now for, I don't know, four or five years at least, right?
SL: Bao's been wanting to make a film about my father for some time, and we've been in conversation about it. We've gotten to know each other over time and I think in some ways the timing couldn't have been better. I will say this, certainly it's easier for me to trust the portrayal of my father or the telling of his story in the hands of an Asian person, because there's a certain amount of understanding and resonance there. But Bao and I, we've been having these sort of professional meetings and talks. Then, we happened to run into each other at this entirely different setting that was like a much more social seminar. I was like, “Oh, you're here!” That's what sort of sparked a much more personal connection with one another, which I think has helped everything. To be much more like, “OK, this is a person that's interested in working on themself, or they're curious, they're learners, aside from being filmmakers.” I think that the film turned out beautifully.
ESQ: The last thing I wanted to ask you: Similar to how Bao was talking about with the dumbbell curls and sandwich bites, is there anything that you saw during the making of this that you didn't know before, or made you think of a good memory?
SL: Well, it was not me that told the sandwich dumbbell story. So that's a first for me. But it's also completely in line with many of the stories that I've heard. I mean, people have told me stories where he was walking down the street in Hong Kong as a teenager with dumbbells in his hands and punching the air. And people were like, What are you doing? I've heard stories about how he was waiting for an elevator so he dropped down and did push-ups in the lobby while he was waiting.
I'm always so intrigued and curious to see what is meaningful for another person with regard to my father's legacy. I didn’t know that this was not going to be a talking-head documentary, because when we were interviewed, we were filmed. So I was pleasantly surprised to see sort of the cohesiveness and the intimacy of the way the film turned out. You're not pulled away from it and you hear these sort of voices that sort of just move everything along like music across the screen.
ESQ: Thank you for this.
SL: Thank you. You know, I do find that my father's words and my father's energy, his legacy, is very uplifting for people, you know? It is sort of an inspiration and a fire that can be lit—so I really feel that this film will be in a similar vein.