[Review] ‘BE WATER’ a Bruce Lee documentary that plays it safe (even when it comes to racism)

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

BE WATER

Not rated, 105 minutes.
Director: Bao Nguyen
Cast: Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, Shannon Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Chow, Diana Lee Inosanto and Andre Morgan

When a man becomes a legend, which one do you show?  

Lovers of old cinema, specifically John Ford westerns, will understand my paraphrasing of the “print the legend” quote from 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Famous to the point of becoming a trope, it still retains an air of hubris when labeling someone whose stature looms larger than his shadow. And while it is easy to call someone “the best” or “the greatest,” words like “legend” or “icon” place someone in another pantheon altogether. 

When ESPN promoted BE WATER during THE LAST DANCE, its 10-part series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, I was both excited and confused. Its subject, Bruce Lee, is not someone I instantly associate with sports.

Combining rare home movies, letters, photos, and movie/TV excerpts – along with interviews of Lee’s surviving family, friends, and former students (including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) – BE WATER keep things relatively in the middle in exploring the life of an action movie star whose greatness was cut short at age 32. His impact on martial arts is undoubted; a student of the Wushu style of Kung Fu (Wing Chun), Lee would later create Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid style of different fighting disciplines.     

Bao Nguyen is unapologetic in his love for Bruce Lee. The Vietnamese-American filmmaker showed he was ready for primetime five years ago when his directorial feature documentary, LIVE FROM NEW YORK, opened the Tribeca Film Festival before making its broadcast premiere ahead of the 41st season premiere of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Given that the documentary was an unabashed love letter to the variety show’s forty-year history, Nguyen shows a similar admiration about a man who pushed barriers and boundaries in becoming Asia’s greatest icon. 

You can’t blame Nguyen. Asians were rarely positioned in prominent film or television roles. So, to see Lee on screen as a young boy and not playing a stereotype was a big deal. His documentary attempts to humanize the myth associated with Bruce Lee and develop a narrative that traverses Lee’s life as a stranger and immigrant, and from outsider to megastar. To accomplish this, Nguyen offers historical context of the Chinese and how they were seen as less than human in America during the 1800s; they were brought over to be cheap labor to expand the West and then denied the opportunity to immigrate. The Chinese were also secondary citizens in Hong Kong. 

Then you have Bruce Lee: born in San Francisco but raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong. His birthright is exclusionary, making him a stranger in two lands.

BE WATER taps into all this as it navigates Lee’s upbringing, including being a child star in Chinese cinema and his rebellious teenage years where street fights would lead his parents to put him on a boat back to San Francisco to live with extended family. A section on his fledgling career in Hollywood turns out to be the most prescient on account of Lee’s battle against racism.  

Nguyen should have devoted the documentary to this topic primarily; during the Civil Rights Movement, Asians were viewed as the “model minority,” a myth perpetrated because of their docile nature in contrast to persons of color. And then there’s Hollywood’s standards when it comes to Asians. For instance, MGM refusing to consider Anna May Wong for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese woman, in THE GOOD EARTH. The part went to white actress Luise Rainer. Rainer would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Mickey Rooney playing Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese landlord in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is cited in BE WATER for its racist depiction of Asian people. This stereotype would also be illustrated in the biopic DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY.

Interesting in context when you look back to Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and China’s refusal to play the film because of its negative depiction of Bruce Lee. (Though Nguyen’s doc does acknowledge that Lee was “an a**hole from time to time.”) Especially when discovering that Lee didn’t get a warm reception on his return to Hong Kong after a decade of trying to make a career in Hollywood.

Stories of Lee fighting racism, fighting acceptance, his multi-racial friends (like learning his first martial arts student was black), and becoming enmeshed with San Francisco’s counterculture contribute to a philosophy that is all-encompassing, bridging East with West. Even the documentary’s title, BE WATER, is adherence to that ideology.   

If only the end result didn’t come across as fan service about a man who wouldn’t live long enough to see himself a Hollywood star with ENTER THE DRAGON. Only in death was America now ready for an Asian leading man. 

BE WATER is a good starting point to get to know more about Bruce Lee. Though it clearly prints the legend more than it does the man.

Grade: B-

BE WATER aired earlier this month on ESPN; also streaming and on demand. Available today on Amazon Prime Video (30 FOR 30, Episode 30) for $2.99.

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