Bruce Lee doc 'Be Water' reveals challenges, humanity that made the man behind the legend

Jen Yamato
Forever the dragon: Martial-arts legend Bruce Lee is profiled with intimate archival footage and interviews with those who knew him best in the ESPN documentary "Be Water."  (Bruce Lee Family Archives)

Martial arts icon Bruce Lee has been celebrated, idolized and imitated by millions of fans across the world for decades, yet many still don't know the man behind the myth, the philosophies that drove him — or that he had to leave America, the country of his birth, to become a star in the first place.

Premiering Sunday during a pandemic that's seen a sharp rise in anti-Asian sentiment and an urgent national reckoning with racism in America, the ESPN documentary "Be Water" humanizes the behind-the-scenes battles Lee fought in life with even sharper relevance than filmmaker Bao Nguyen could have anticipated.

"Bruce Lee was this anomaly — he was fighting back against decades of what people thought an Asian American male should be," said Nguyen. "He had to fight in all these different places about who he was and what he was supposed to be. He said, no: I’m going to tell you who I am."

Charismatic and commanding onscreen, driven and disciplined in his work, Lee rose to international fame as the star of Hong Kong action films in the 1970s. In "Fist of Fury," "The Way of the Dragon" and "The Big Boss," he captivated audiences and sparked the popularity of martial arts in America. "Enter the Dragon," released a month after his death in 1973 at age 32, made him a legend.

In the new ESPN documentary "Be Water," filmmaker Bao Nguyen examines Bruce Lee's life, work and lasting legacy.  (Bruce Lee Family Archive)

But many don't know about Bruce Lee's experiences growing up in Hong Kong, or the diverse friendships that helped him define his own idea of Americanness when he returned to the U.S. as a young man. They may not know how he, rejected by Hollywood, then had to find his own way into the history books by making movies overseas.

"The Asian male was the face of the enemy to many Americans," said Nguyen. "It was this vicious cycle of society reflecting media and culture, and media and culture reflecting society. There had to be some kind of intervention there and Bruce, in a way, was that intervention. He was the hero that we hadn’t seen before. The leading man that we hadn’t seen before."

Representation was Lee’s form of protest, says Nguyen. But given current calls to support black lives, he hopes the film underscores how the fight for civil rights in the 1960s paved the way for strides by Lee and the Asian American community. “One thing about Bruce is, people always think of him as this great teacher,” said Nguyen. “But he was as much a student of everyone he met in America.”

Weaving together archival photographs, home videos, interviews and Lee’s own written words, Nguyen crafts a poetic profile in history. Intimate recollections from daughter Shannon Lee, her mother Linda Lee Cadwell, and friends including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto and Angela Mao paint a portrait of the Bruce Lee they knew, while cultural experts contextualize the world in which he was forging his own defiant path.

Reading aloud from her father's collected writings, Shannon Lee gives voice to his words as the film explores the journey he undertook to find his place and purpose. "Who am I? That is the age old question asked by every man, at one time or another."

"Pretty much everyone knows the name Bruce Lee, and the top-line association is as this cool, kick-ass martial arts action film star," Shannon Lee said. "But there are many layers to him and to his story. I think that people don’t understand how hard he worked, how what he accomplished was so remarkable, how deep a thinker and practitioner he was as a philosopher and as someone who not only espoused philosophy but lived his philosophy."

Born in San Francisco in 1940 to a Cantonese opera star father and a mother of part European descent, Lee grew up in Hong Kong where he followed in his dad’s footsteps. He acted in more than a dozen films as a child and studied Wing Chun under the tutelage of master Ip Man.

By the time he was sent to live in America at the age of 18 he'd already endured xenophobia in Hong Kong from fellow martial artists over his identity. When he began teaching his own martial arts philosophy Jeet Kune Do, he welcomed racially diverse students from all backgrounds.

“He faced a lot of prejudices in his own life and I think he could just see at a core level, at a heart-centered level, how truly ridiculous those types of judgments were on people," said Shannon Lee, whose parents wed at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some parts of the country. "My father embraced all communities and himself and I think that he represented in his own being and also in the films that he did this powerful, nonwhite figure who was able to take on all different injustices."

His first student in Seattle, Jesse Glover, sought out Lee's training after experiencing police brutality, says Nguyen. "That was one of the formative experiences Bruce learned of early on in his time in America, that helped propel who he became as an American. That made him realize, you have to see someone for who they are instead of where they come from and what they look like."

But breaking through Hollywood's racial barriers was another matter. Asian characters were routinely relegated to subordinate roles onscreen, vilified, emasculated or reduced to offensive stereotypes — that is, when they weren't being played by Caucasian actors in yellowface.

Before becoming a Hong Kong action star, Bruce Lee co-starred as Kato on TV's "The Green Hornet." Even then, he had to fight to get his character more agency and lines of dialogue.  (Bruce Lee Family Archive)

Landing the role of masked sidekick Kato on "The Green Hornet" in 1966, Lee fought behind the scenes to get his character more agency and dialogue. He conceived a series about a wandering martial artist in the West and, Lee Caldwell says, presented it to Warner Bros. But after meeting with Lee, former TV executive Tom Kuhn says in "Be Water," he thought Lee's accent would be "a little bit tough" for U.S. audiences. "I didn’t find one Asian actor that I thought I could ‘sell’ to ABC," says Kuhn.

The series would eventually become the series "Kung Fu," Lee's family says, and the lead role went to David Carradine, a white actor. "The people at the studio decided that America was not ready for an Asian hero," says Abdul-Jabbar in the documentary.

Real opportunities came only after he decamped the U.S. for Hong Kong and returned a movie star and filmmaker. "Game of Death," which he'd begun filming on and recruited Inosanto and Abdul-Jabbar to star in before his death, would have marked Lee's second film as writer and director.

"Bruce Lee has become this global cultural icon; in a way he almost transcends race, to some people. But when he was living he was very much an Asian American," said Nguyen. "I think it’s important to understand where that kind of determination and discipline comes from: it comes from a place of struggle, a place of rejection, and from that comes a voice of honesty and authenticity."

"Be Water" is also recommended viewing for anyone who saw Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood," which Shannon Lee criticized last year as reducing her father's legacy to a caricature. "I’m hoping that a lot of similar audiences who saw ‘Once Upon a Time’ will see this documentary, and will hopefully get a glimpse behind the scenes of that time period and who my father was, because I really think that ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ did his legacy a disservice," Lee said.

In that film, a version of Lee fights Brad Pitt's fictional stuntman character and is glimpsed training Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring in martial arts during the making of 1968's "The Wrecking Crew."

Weighing in on the depiction in the Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Jabbar added his own criticism and remembered Lee, his teacher and friend: "He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes."

"Be Water" provides context to that post-"Green Hornet" period in Lee's career: "He would refuse to play any parts that were demeaning to Chinese people," says Lee Cadwell in the film, "and for the next few years he had very few parts.” Soon after he'd go to Hong Kong to make his first major movie debut in 1971's "The Big Boss" — the start of his global stardom.

Lee says she has yet to hear from Tarantino on the matter. "It’s my intention to stand for my father and for his legacy and for the accurate portrayal of him and Asian Americans, and human beings," she said. "It was only my intention to speak my mind and share my opinion, which I was glad to be able to do. And now I’m glad that this will come out and people will get to see another side."