Media Action Network for Asian Americans issued the following statement on Jan. 29 objecting to Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar nomination for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” because of his depiction of the late Bruce Lee, and alleging that the director has a history of negative portrayals of people of color.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but MANAA is concerned about the Best Original Screenplay nod, as the nonprofit watchdog organization believes it’s undeserved given the insulting and inaccurate depiction of Asian American icon Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
In the film, stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) laughs when Lee tells those gathered on a set that in a fight with the future Muhammad Ali, “I would make him a cripple!” Lee gets angry, asking Booth what’s so funny.
He responds: “You’re a little man with a big mouth and a big chip. And I think you should be embarrassed to suggest you’d be anything more than a stain on the seat of Cassius Clay’s trunks.”
Lee angrily retorts: “Brother, you’re the one with the big mouth. And I would really enjoy closing it, especially in front of all my friends. But my hands are registered as lethal weapons. That means, we get into a fight, I accidentally kill you, I go to jail!”
Lee suggests “a friendly contest … two out of three.” Although he defeats Booth in Round One, on their second match-up, Booth throws Lee into a vintage Lincoln Continental, damaging it.
Audiences laughed, as Lee was set up as a conceited jerk who deserved to be taken down a peg or two. The third round is interrupted before a winner can be determined.
After Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, expressed outrage, Tarantino said at a press conference: “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy. The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well, he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well, yeah, he did! Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. … She absolutely said that!”
But on Twitter, Matthew Polly, author of the biography :Bruce Lee: A Life,” said the director was wrong. “Linda was quoting a TV critic [who]wrote: ‘Those who watched him would bet on Lee to render Cassius Clay senseless if they were put in a room and told that anything goes.’”
In the book “The Making of Enter the Dragon” (1987), “Enter the Dragon” co-star “Bolo” Yeung recalled Lee telling him that in the ’60s, while screening a documentary on Ali, “Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali… Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes… Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. ‘Look at my hand,’ he said. ‘That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.’”
Dan Inosanto, one of only three martial arts Lee trained to teach his Jeet June Do philosophy — and who co-starred with Lee in his final film, “Game of Death” — told Variety: “Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on. In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts.”
Inosanto often accompanied Lee on TV and movie sets from “The Green Hornet” until his death and says Lee would never brag about his skills or get into fights to show off.
In his Aug. 16 Hollywood Reporter column, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who fought Lee in “Game of Death”) wrote: “I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. He always politely declined and moved on. First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option. 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.”
Lee himself once unambiguously stated, “Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.”
Tarantino exploits the real-life reputation of Bruce Lee to establish Booth as a formidable force to be reckoned with. In doing so, he arguably becomes the most powerful and volatile force in the film.
Tarantino’s History of Demeaning People of Color
Since the “Kill Bill” (2003/2004) films, Tarantino hasn’t hid his superficial fixation with the East. Audiences watched as The Bride (Uma Thurman) sashayed across the screen in a replica of Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death” yellow and black-striped track suit wielding a Japanese katana and massacring a horde of faceless, nameless Asian men wearing Kato masks from “The Green Hornet.”
She challenged notorious yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) to a sword fight in the snow (a scene inspired by the 1973 Japanese film “Lady Snowblood”), slicing her head open. The Bride then miraculously mastered the art of kung-fu with laughable aplomb and in adequate time to assassinate her aging lover/betrayer (David Carradine).
The effect of these stylistic and narrative choices demonstrates an appreciation of Asian culture and aesthetics but not of Asian people and bodies.
Like many white directors, Tarantino culturally appropriates aspects of Asian culture (e.g. martial arts, samurai swords, philosophies, old movies) and uses them to defeat or kill the very people who crafted them in the first place, Asian men and women.
As far back as the 1993 film “True Romance” (which Tarantino wrote), there are blatant and demeaning references to people of color. In 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” (which Tarantino wrote and directed), Vincent Vega (John Travolta) shoots and kills a young black man and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) tries to enlist his friend Jimmie — played by Tarantino — to help hide the body. Jimmie goes on a rant, pointing out that his home doesn’t have a sign that says, “Dead [N-word] Storage.”
Not long after, the audience witnesses the graphic anal rape of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), with a ball-gag in his mouth, only to be rescued by a courageous Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), samurai sword in hand, of course.
Unforgettably, this same film featured a scene where Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) tells a child that he hid a gold watch in his anal cavity in order to prevent its confiscation by his Vietnamese captors, whom he describes as “gooks” and “slopes.”
In “Django Unchained” (2012), Tarantino set a record for the use of the N-word in a film (more than 110 times). After Spike Lee said he was boycotting the movie because of the overuse of the racial slur (“I use it, but not excessively… But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made — an honorary black man?”).
Tarantino, displaying his ignorance as to why he, as a white man, should be the one to determine if, when, and how often racial slurs should be used, told a reporter, “The minute any word has that much power, as far as I’m concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power.”
Backlash Against Bruce Lee Portrayal
Although fact and fiction often blur in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Bruce Lee is the only historic figure — besides the Manson family members — to be depicted negatively. Lee has been the inspiration of millions in large part because of his talents, but also due to the strength of his character and vision in trying to knock down barriers for Asian Americans in Hollywood. He was one of the few confident, leading Asian American men prior to his death in 1973.
While he wasn’t perfect, Lee’s remarkable legacy has stood the test of time for over half a century. Lee invented Jeet Kune Do, a philosophy of martial arts drawing from different disciplines that many credit with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
Unlike Lee, Tarantino sells future generations the empty promise that creative expression and malicious tropes go hand-in-hand. That the ruthless exploitation of one’s fellow man remains justifiable. Instead of attempting to defile the legacies of others, Tarantino should spend more time considering his own.
Shannon Lee decried Tarantino’s characterization of her late father as arrogant. As she told The L.A. Times, “I feel like he turned his confidence into arrogance and his intelligence into mockery.” The Wrap quoted her as saying, “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. It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.”
Lee told Variety that, despite Tarantino’s use of elements from her father’s past work, she doubts he’s really a fan of Lee’s. “I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways… But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true.”
Reportedly, Shannon Lee appealed to China’s National Film Administration to have her father’s depiction in the film changed. Tarantino refused to make any changes, so it was banned in China.
Even more important than the question of whether Ali or Lee would’ve won in a fight, says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, “The question I’ve heard for decades is, ‘How different would the image of Asian men have been had Bruce Lee lived?’ Tarantino irresponsibly took the one iconic figure Asian Americans had, ridiculed him, and turned him into a joke.”
MANAA asks Academy members to take these concerns into consideration as they cast their ballot for both “Best Picture” and “Best Original Screenplay.”
MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992. It led nationwide protests against the film “Rising Sun” in 1993 and challenged Sarah Silverman’s use of “Chinks” in her joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001. Since 1999, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, MANAA has met annually with the top four television networks pushing for more inclusion of Asian Americans. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA.