Reflecting on ESPN’s Bruce Lee Documentary, “Be Water”

In watching the newest Bruce Lee documentary by Bao Nguyen on ESPN’s 30 For 30 episode, “Be Water,” there was a reoccurring theme throughout Lee’s life – bridging the gap. For those knowledgeable about Lee’s philosophies, concepts, and principles of Jeet Kune Do, the phrase means to get closer to one’s opponent to execute a strike or takedown, or smother said opponent. If we take that concept out of the context of martial arts and superimpose it onto Lee’s life, it becomes a philosophy that he lived by, adapting to the many situations life threw at him in his thirty-two years. “Be Water” covers Bruce Lee’s life in its entirety, creating a narrative that explained the political and social background movements in which Lee attempted to make a name for himself and spread Chinese kung fu throughout America. The concept of bridging the gap, however, shows itself in the subtleties of Lee’s actions throughout his life, fully demonstrating how to live the martial arts way.

Director Bao Nguyen opens the documentary stating that in the years of research, filming, and producing his piece, Nguyen found that Lee’s main contribution to the American world was gaining or becoming the representation of Asian/Asian-Americans in American film and television; that without Lee, such representation on the silver screen would have taken much longer. So sets the tone for the rest of documentary.

Throughout the telecast, voice overs of film critics, writers, and historians contextualize the world in which Lee was trying to succeed, from the origins of the Asian stereotype in American culture to the social and political climate of both Hong Kong and America. It’s within this social and political climate that Lee latches onto to create his success – he viewed martial arts as a form of physical expression, linking it to the countercultures of America, therefore appealing to those disenfranchised by their government and its social oppression.

Before taking on the world, Bruce Lee returns to America, setting up shop in Seattle in his early twenties. There, in attempting to find his identity after living most of his life in Hong Kong and fighting punks in rooftops duels, Lee only wants to grow as a martial artist and share his Chinese culture and kung fu with everyone. In this identity search, Lee immersed himself more into martial arts training and study, soon landing himself a spot at American Kenpo Karate founder Edmund Parker’s International Karate Championship in 1964, demonstrating, in his usual confidence, his martial art technique and philosophy at the time. Later that year, as a Hollywood studio scout invites Lee to do a screen test, leading him to take up the role as Kato in the 1966 television adaptation of the Green Hornet. As Kato, Lee experienced how the television and film industry viewed and treated non-white performers.

Through the short run of the series, Lee was treated more as an extra than co-star to Van Williams’ Green Hornet, resulting in the wake of zero lines for him and a much lower paycheck at the end of each episode. Lee essentially fought for more lines and camera time, as he felt he was representing his fellow Chinese and Asian counterparts on television. Even after the series’ cancellation in 1967, Lee appeared in a handful of roles playing, of course, a martial artist to some degree. Lee did not, however, take any role that was offered to him – he did not want roles that demeaned or degraded Chinese. The final nail in the coffin to his disillusionment with Hollywood was Warner Bros’ rejection and blatant stealing of his television series Warrior, to which the studio morphed into the 1972 series, Kung Fu.

Despite these events, Lee, still determined to become a film actor, packed his bags and family, moving to his childhood home of Hong Kong in 1971, starring in The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Way of the Dragon (1972). These films made him a Hong Kong superstar and, with the political and nationalistic overtones of Fist of Fury, helped attract those of the counterculture in the city at the time. Additionally, Way of the Dragon demonstrated to Hollywood that Lee offered something – his bankability. This led Warner Bros. to join Golden Harvest (now Orange Sky Golden Harvest) to co-produce Enter the Dragon, to which sections of Lee’s original ideas and scripts for the film were scrapped, almost like working back in Hollywood again. As one voiceover mentioned, Lee was an “asshole” for not showing up on set once the American crew arrived to begin shooting. Lee’s absence was, as another voiceover maintained, a protest for the studios to include more of his ideas and concepts. Of course, the studios relented some creative ideas and concepts for Lee’s and continued filming.

The documentary ends with Lee’s death and his ever-apparent legacy of influencing not only Hong Kong but American film studios, actors, genres, and martial artists. His name became household after his untimely death and continues to inspire – but why? Though an answer to that question could produce articles and perhaps books, the short of it could be that throughout his adult life, he attempted to bridge the gap. He had goals he wanted to reach, and he adapted himself to the situations in front of him. His life choices demonstrated his ability to change, adjust, and go with the flow. Case in point: when Hollywood was not interested in Lee anymore, he moved to Hong Kong to reach his goals. Perhaps Lee’s best portrayal of his martial arts and life philosophy of bridging the gap was the climatic duel between him and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. Throughout the fight, Lee changed the way he moved, attacked, defended, and dodged with his opponent, all to overcome Norris’ character.

At the end of the day, there is no denying Bruce Lee’s influence in both the modern martial arts and film industries. Perhaps, those who reflect on him and the role he played in shaping the future of martial arts and action films view him more as a martial artist instead of what he was, a human being and a person. Sometimes the greatest people inspire both with their public and personal persona. Lee’s personal persona, bridging the gap, is something that inspires equally as his public, martial arts persona. Though his public persona continues to be imitated by so many, even almost fifty years after his passing, perhaps imitating or understanding his personal persona of bridging the gap would help being gain a better perspective on who Bruce Lee was as a person and how to live a martial arts life as he did.

Check out the episode on ESPN.

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