Movie About Bruce Lee Faulted for Focus on Fictional White Character

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Philip Ng as Bruce Lee and Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man in a scene from “Birth of the Dragon.”

Philip Ng as Bruce Lee and Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man in a scene from “Birth of the Dragon.”

A new movie about Bruce Lee is being blasted by Asian American critics for telling the story from a white character’s point of view.

Directed by George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) and set in San Francisco in the 1960s, the film is a fictionalized account of a no-holds-barred fight between up-and-coming martial artist Lee (Philip Ng) and legendary kung fu master Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia). Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee, a character based on actor Steve McQueen, who studied with Lee.

The film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September but is not yet in general release.

Billy Magnussen

Billy Magnussen

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review, “You might assume that the film’s central character would be, you know, Bruce Lee. But you’d be wrong. It’s Steve McKee, a rube from Indiana who travels to San Francisco, tries the Beat scene and the free-love hippie scene (really? In 1964?), and then winds up passing out, drunk, in front of the studio where Lee presides over his martial-arts classes. Lee takes him in and signs him up, and the two become friendly. It’s Steve who makes himself into the liaison between Lee and Wong Jack Man, a disgraced monk from a Shaolin monastery …

“There’s a crime plot (more concoction), a fatal romance between Steve — yes, him again! — and the indentured beauty (Melody Peng) he tries to rescue from the San Francisco Chinese underworld, and Lee and Wong become teammates in this endeavor.”

On the “Nerds of Color” blog, Keith Chow wrote, “Because no one wants to go see a movie in which Bruce Lee battles a legendary martial artist, we have to be stuck with another white savior story? This whole thing reminds me of the lead-up to another film featuring a legendary battle between kung fu icons. In 2008, Lionsgate released ‘Forbidden Kingdom,’ which featured the first time Jet Li and Jackie Chan were in the same movie. And just like ‘Birth of the Dragon,’ the filmmakers just had to put a white dude in as the audience’s surrogate.”

“Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu wrote, “This is disappointing on multiple levels. But mainly, I am not interested in watching the story of Bruce Lee’s most famous fight — accurate, fictionalized, overexaggerated, hyper-stylized or otherwise — through the eyes of a who-the-hell-is-this-guy white protagonist.”

Lee’s daughter, Shannon, weighed in on her Facebook page: “A great number of you have written to me with your concerns about ‘Birth of the Dragon.’ I share your concerns and want to make it clear that ‘Birth of the Dragon’ was made without my family’s consent or involvement. I have seen the film (out of necessity alone) and, in my opinion and the opinions of many, this film is a travesty on many levels. I think this film is a step backward for Asians in film, not to mention that the portrayal of Bruce Lee is inaccurate and insulting. I am disappointed that such a project would be funded and produced.”

Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee's daughter. (Rafu Shimpo photo)

Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter. (Rafu Shimpo photo)

Lee — who died in 1973 at the age of 32 — was previously portrayed by Jason Scott Lee in the 1993 biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” which also starred Lauren Holly as his wife, Linda. Shannon Lee had a cameo role in that film.

JoBlo.com reviewer Chris Bumbray wrote, “How is it possible that in 1993, Hollywood could produce a successful Bruce Lee biopic anchored by an Asian lead, but in 2016, he becomes a supporting player in his own story? … Magnussen is a weird choice to lead the film, and seems to have been cast mostly due to his resemblance to McQueen, who really only became Lee’s student well after he became a star, when Lee was living in L.A. (around the time he made ‘The Green Hornet’) …

“Probably in an attempt to appeal to action fans, Nolfi has shoehorned in an East-meets-West love story between Magnussen and a Chinese girl enslaved to the Triads. The end is total fantasy, with Lee and Wong teaming up to take down the Traids and rescue the enslaved girls …”

Nolfi has defended the film, telling Deadline.com, “To be able to watch this white guy become a fully formed man, with Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man becoming these surrogate father figures to him, even though they were about the same age… I thought that was very unusual in Hollywood filmmaking.”

One of the film’s producers, Michael London, was quoted as saying at the Toronto International Film Festival that the decision to add the white character “was made primarily to allow distributors to see the film as a marketable proposition. From a Hollywood standpoint, ‘Birth of the Dragon’ looks like a foreign film: It has a largely Asian cast, it was financed by Asian financiers, there’s only a single white actor. What’s so funny was that while we have been accused of tokenism over the portrayal of Asian characters, during the making of the movie we were concerned about tokenism for the exact opposite reason, because we only had one white character.”

He also said, “No one had the intention to do anything other than celebrate Bruce Lee, at a time when East and West are opening up to each other in a profound way.”

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