After weeks of silence, director Quentin Tarantino defended his controversial portrayal of Bruce Lee in his movie “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.” Unfortunately, Tarantino may have missed the whole point of the criticism he faced.
Set in the hippy Los Angeles in 1969, the film tells the fictional story of former TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his middle-aged stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In the rapidly changing Hollywood, Dalton and Booth cross paths with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Steve McQueen, and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
Yet, in his only major scene, Bruce Lee is portrayed as an “arrogant a-hole who was full of hot air.” He calls his hands “registered lethal weapons” and brags about how he can make Muhammad Ali “a cripple.” Scoffed at by Cliff, the arrogant Lee proposes a fight, but is shockingly thrown into the side of a car.
The film’s depiction of Lee has sparked criticism and intense debates on the line between fictionalization and insult.
Last week, Tarantino responded to the controversy, claiming that:
“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy. I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I’ve heard him saying things like that, to that effect.”
Whether or not Lee was a jerk in reality is not the point. Like any of us who didn't know Lee personally, Tarantino does not have the authority to claim who Lee was. But more importantly: in storytelling, does Lee as a character serve any purpose to the plot and character development, or is it simply a joke? And in our multicultural society, what is the impact of Lee as a character in this film?
Actor Mike Moh, who plays Lee in the movie, explained that the fight scene attempted to showcase Cliff’s poweress. Instead, the main takeaway from the scene is that Lee is a pompous buffoon - all talk and no substance. The character of Bruce Lee does not contribute to the plot, but only serves as a laughing stock.
Indeed, caricatures of historical figures are commonplace in filmmaking. They can often be effective and playful. But when an ethnic minority still depends on the figure to challenge existing stereotypes, it warrants second thoughts.
Bruce Lee, even decades after his death, is a beacon of hope and pride for many Asian Americans, especially men. While Hollywood has long perpetuated emasculating stereotypes of Asian men, Lee is one of the few alternatives. He shows that Asian men can be humble, but also strong, powerful, and even sexy.
But in Tarantino’s film, Lee’s greatness - his kung fu, power and charisma - is nothing but a subject of ridicule. By portraying Lee as an egotistical fraud, Tarantino was too insensitive to Asian stereotypes.
Walter Chaw points out the pitfalls of putting cultural icons on a pedestal,On the other hand, as an artist, Tarantino has the creative freedom to fictionalize any historical figure. Chinese American film critic
“Bruce Lee has become posterized or memed to this point where he’s this wise Eastern philosopher who was also indestructible… it dehumanizes him.”
I agree. It is reductive to shield non-white characters from fictional adaption simply because they are people of color. Reverence and respect for historical figures should limit artistic production.
However, fictionality doesn’t make films any less powerful. Films are influential tools in marginalizing ethnic minorities and reinforcing racists images. Need an example? See ‘The Birth of A Nation’.
Moreover, minority communities often don’t have the leverage or the means to counter misrepresentation. Creatives attempting to fictionalize our cultural icons should recognize the cultural context and the impact of their production.
Tarantino’s supporters shouldn’t brush off critique as self-victimization and sanctification. Rather, they need to understand the reason behind our reverence and “overprotectiveness” - the lack of representation.
Yes, in recent years, there have been a few movies with all Asian American casts. Still, there are few Asian cultural icons and limited Asian American representation on the big screen. As a reader succinctly pointed out in their comment on a Variety article, “it’s easy to tell others to ‘relax’ and ‘stop being so sensitive’ when you have Pitt, DiCaprio, Pacino, et al. to idolize. Asian Americans don’t have that privilege of having an abundant amount of leading men who look like them.”
In the film’s nostalgic world, the satirical portrayal of Bruce Lee and its backlash bring us a glaring reminder. We need more Asian American artists, writers, and creatives, so that one day, we will have enough leaders and icons to look up to and can finally laugh at caricatures as light-hearted jokes.