American basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has weighed in on the Bruce Lee controversy in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Kareem was a friend to the late martial artist and actor.
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Jabbar said filmmakers have a “responsibility when playing with people’s perceptions of admired historic people to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character.”
“Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being,” he said.
Abdul-Jabbar made it clear that Tarantino is one of his favourite filmmakers, because he is “so bold, uncompromising and unpredictable.” However, it disturbed him that Tarantino “chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.”
He further said that whenever some “random jerk” taunted Lee and invited him to a fight, he 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. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways,” Adbul-Jabbar said.
The controversy first erupted when Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee said in an interview to The Wrap that her father in the film “comes across as an arrogant a**hole who was full of hot air. And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”
Tarantino, in response, doubled down on the depiction, saying it was accurate. He said Lee was indeed an arrogant man and he didn’t make it up. “I heard him say things like that to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Mohammad Ali,’ well yeah he did. Alright? Not only did he say that but his wife Linda Lee said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that,” Tarantino said.