THERE’S A BRUCE LEE DOCUMENTARY FOR EVERY DECADE, WHICH REFLECTS THAT decade or the tenor of the times. In the late 70’s a few years after his death I remember some rather shoddy ones. Hastily packaged they were designed to capitalize upon his posthumous superstardom after his shocking death. They were the perfect companions to the “new” films which unspooled , all purporting to contain the “last” footage or the “lost” footage. Some more unscruplous Asian film companies simply hired lookalikes and had them opt for similiar sounding names, to further confuse more gullible Westerners. Thus “Bruce Li” entered the consciousness of those of us alive during this period.
There was even a rumor that Lee had faked his own death, rather than be exploited by the Hong Kong mob. Or that stardom was too much for him mentally, so why not disappear?
There’s a parallel which I had never noticed until now of Lee being the “Asian” James Dean. Both were very good looking, sexy, talented and charismatic. Each only made a handful of films, with their first major films catapulting them into superstardom. Tragic deaths claimed both as very young men, their legends seeding and blossoming from an ethos of “Live Fast, Die Young” ascribed to them posthumously.
Then in the late 1990s/early 21st Century with the advent of rap as a major commercial force internationally suddenly Bruce Lee documentaries focused upon Lee’s supposedly “surprising” influence upon hip hop. Though the Wu-Tang Clan had explicitly brought forward an inner-city Black fascination with 70’s kung fu cinema into mainstream consideration, that Black Americans could be fascinated by someone of another race and culture seemed to genuinely baffle many white commentators–who of course themselves were from a different race and culture than Bruce Lee.
Fitting the era of identity politics and of an Americanized push toward more representation of Asian-Americans in media we now have the documentary Be Water. Directed by Bao Nguyen, a first-generation American of Vietnamese descent, is a necessary correction.
Maybe even an over correction. Nguyen is determined to register Lee’s life and career as part, symbol and paradigm of the Asian diaspora into America. His admirable goal is to flesh out Lee for our times, to no longer allowed for him to be seen, objectified and ultimately dismissed as “the Other.”
Fittingly there’s an Asian-American/Asian chorus of voices discussing Lee, reminding the viewer again and again of Lee’s dualities, his hyphenated identities and of their presence as well.
For example the well-known actress Nancy Kwan:
Often with non-white racial minorities who become celebrated “crossover” figures with Western racial majority countries and cultures there is an unspoken attempt to “de-racinate” the person, to view their accomplishment as solely exceptional from his or her group, while excluding the person’s racial makeup from any serious consideration.
Or to stigmatize them as an “exotic,” an “other.” To counter the vulnerability of recognizing their unique accomplishment. The rubber band response by the majority culture also responds by reinforcing a collective notion of this alleged racial/ethnic difference rooted in prejudice itself.
Both approaches, which irrationally can go hand-in-hand, dehumanizing all involved. To not see someone as who they really are, their full dimensions on display before anyone and everyone, is just another manifestation of racism. Benign prejudice is…still prejudice, after all.
Be Water could be said to rub our collective noses against these unsettling tropes which overshadowed Lee’s life and career. It doesn’t spare us from the indignities inflicted upon him, as well as other Asians in America. To some this dossier of pain and struggle may be too much, too overwhelming, especially for those only interested in Lee as a supreme martial artist.
The scenes of Lee’s early career in Hollywood, those years of mixed blessings, are highly uncomfortable. All the restrictive ways of looking at Lee–and other Asians–hold an uncomfortable mirror to us all, a Rorschach test. What do we see when we see Bruce Lee? Even today?
Every time Lee was shown being interviewed by a white journalist I cringed, dreading the encounter as it unspooled before me. I had never seen or had forgotten this archival footage. The condescension quivering upon their thin lips reverberates throughout the documentary and leaves a stain afterwards. But it’s too easy–and counter-productive–to mock their cluelessness. We admire ourselves far too much if we merely condemn their smug pats on the back, slumming by interviewing some crazy Chinaman practicing some new “fad” sweeping America. The idea of Lee being a multiplicity could not dent even a sector of their bias toward him, or their equivalents in Hollywood.
We are superficially more “advanced” than these perplexed, bemused white men. Or are we? Lee’s insistence upon his humanity, of his refusal to be limited by anyone’s biased expectations of him or his “kind” emerges as a heroic theme throughout Be Water.
Furthermore Nguyen is also eager to introduce into public discussion maybe for the first time of how consonant Lee was with Black friends and their identity while probing the similiarilties and differences between these two racial minority groups. While Lee’s friendship with the Black basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar was known during the course of his life(and Jabbar had a stunning–and unnerving–cameo in Game of Death), what might have escaped his admirers was how profoundly he was affected by the stylistic influence of Muhammad Ali and other black boxers.
A multiculturalist in spirit long before the term, Lee appears in the documentary as a progressive-thinking humanist. His pluralism was undoubtedly rooted in the lifelong tension in his life, questions of authenticity thrusted upon him by America, Hollywood and even Hong Kong about whether or not he was American or Hong Kong Chinese, Eastern or Western–and could he possibly be both?
That Lee could openly relate to the ongoing Civil Rights movement during his lifetime is a major focus of the documentary. Some of his identification with other races and cultures has the marker of the times, yet there’s also a Whitman-esque pulse in his desire for human connections, regardless of race and national origin.
Yet this exposition of Bruce Lee as representative of the Chinese/Asian immigrant struggle in America so dominants Be Water that Lee’s eventual stardom is given very short shrift.
Yes, I understand that Nguyen may have felt he was on a mission to more properly affix Lee in our consciousness, than any celebration of Lee which neglects his very real identities is no celebration at all.
The depictions of historical racism suffered by Chinese-Americans and of Lee’s at-times humiliating journey through Hollywood are eye opening and necessary, making for a painful yet absorbing opening act. But his stardom years should not be taken for granted by the director.
Other documentaries have focused upon Lee’s return to Hong Kong, and there has even been behind-the-scenes features devoted exclusively to his greatest international hit Enter the Dragon. But I was expecting more from Be Water, for the anthropological to meet up with the expose, for there to be more of a dance between the weight of history and the lightness of art and entertainment.
Nguyen’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he takes it as a given every member of the audience should already know about his famous years. It’s not an approach I agree with. Especially for a younger generation who may be encountering the myth of Lee for the first time. Or even older fans who may not be aware of the nuances.
I will settle for what I can. Any opportunity to see Lee is not an opportunity to be missed. Decades after his death and of his life being wrapped inside some gauze of mystery, legend and other distortions, the charisma retains itself. As does the vitality of his being. You can’t tear your eyes from him.
Be Water is A Portrait of Bruce Lee as An Artist and a Young Man. And although maddeningly incomplete remains captivating.