Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, is not a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” in terms of its onscreen depiction of her father.
In the 1969-set film, Brad Pitt’s stuntman character, Cliff Booth, trades insults with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and the two agree to an informal, best two-out-of-three rounds fight on the set of “The Green Hornet” TV series. Lee easily wins the first, loses the second after Booth slams Lee into a car, and the third is interrupted.
Speaking with The Wrap, Lee said it’s disheartening to see her father portrayed as an “arrogant blowhard” and that because he was an Asian-American man in 1960s Hollywood he had to work much harder to succeed than the real-life equivalents of the film’s fictional white protagonists (Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio) would have had to:
“I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie. I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen… and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion. I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”
Lee, who saw the film Sunday, says Tarantino may have been trying to make a point about how her father was stereotyped in that time period, but the execution doesn’t come across that way:
“He comes across as an arrogant a–hole who was full of hot air, and not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others. It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.
Here, he’s the one with all the puffery and he’s the one challenging Brad Pitt. Which is not how he was. What I’m interested in is raising the consciousness of who Bruce Lee was as a human being and how he lived his life. All of that was flushed down the toilet in this portrayal, and made my father into this arrogant punching bag.”
She also points out that while many characters in the film are caricatures, other famous people from that time like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) are not made fun of. She does however have praise for actor Mike Moh who played Lee, saying he did a good job with some of her father’s mannerisms and voice even if she took issue with how the character was played.
Lee continues her father’s legacy through websites, podcasts and charitable foundations. Matthew Polly, who wrote the book “Bruce Lee: A Life” about his struggles to break into Hollywood, also took issue. He calls the film portrayal an SNL caricature and took umbrage with Lee’s line in which he says he could turn Cassius Clay into a cripple:
“Bruce revered Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali); he never trash-talked him in real life. Bruce never used jumping kicks in an actual fight. And even if he did, there wasn’t a stuntman in Hollywood fast enough to catch his leg and throw him into a car.
Given how sympathetic Tarantino’s portrayal of Steve McQueen, Jay Sebring, and Sharon Tate is, I’m surprised he didn’t afford the same courtesy to Lee, the only non-white character in the film. He could have achieved the same effect – using Bruce to make Brad Pitt’s character look tough – without the mockery.”
He goes on to say he suspects the reason Bruce is taken down a notch in the film is that Lee’s introduction of martial arts to Hollywood fight choreography was a threat to the livelihood of people like Pitt’s character.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is now playing in cinemas.