Amid Quentin Tarantino’s media tour to promote the new release of his novelization of 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director stopped by Joe Rogan’s Spotify podcast. During the June 29 interview, Tarantino was asked about the criticism over the film’s depiction of Bruce Lee — specifically, a fight scene in which Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff, easily knocks down the Lee character, portrayed by Mike Moh. Tarantino told Rogan: “I can understand his daughter having a problem with it — it’s her fucking father, I get that,” before quickly dismissing others’ criticism.
Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, was among those who had spoken out about the scene at the time of the film’s release. And, in response to a request for comment from The Hollywood Reporter on Tarantino’s remarks to Rogan, wrote the below column regarding the director’s characterization of the scene and other comments on the actual Bruce Lee.
Why does Quentin Tarantino speak like he knew Bruce Lee and hated him? It seems weird given he never met Bruce Lee, right? Not to mention that Mr. Tarantino happily dressed the Bride in a knock-off of my father’s yellow jumpsuit and the Crazy 88s in Kato-style masks and outfits for Kill Bill, which many saw as a love letter to Bruce Lee. But love letters usually address the recipient by name, and from what I could observe at the time, Mr. Tarantino tried, interestingly, to avoid saying the name Bruce Lee as much as possible back then.
If only he’d take the name Bruce Lee off his lips now.
You can imagine by now that I am used to people only seeing one facet of my father and blowing that up into a caricature. That has been happening since shortly after he passed. But usually, somewhere in that caricature is some sort of nugget of love for the man and his work. Not so with Mr. Tarantino.
As you already know, the portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Mr. Tarantino, in my opinion, was inaccurate and unnecessary to say the least. (Please let’s not blame actor Mike Moh. He did what he could with what he was given.) And while I am grateful that Mr. Tarantino has so generously acknowledged to Joe Rogan that I may have my feelings about his portrayal of my father, I am also grateful for the opportunity to express this: I’m really fucking tired of white men in Hollywood trying to tell me who Bruce Lee was.
I’m tired of hearing from white men in Hollywood that he was arrogant and an asshole when they have no idea and cannot fathom what it might have taken to get work in 1960s and ’70s Hollywood as a Chinese man with (God forbid) an accent, or to try to express an opinion on a set as a perceived foreigner and person of color. I’m tired of white men in Hollywood mistaking his confidence, passion and skill for hubris and therefore finding it necessary to marginalize him and his contributions. I’m tired of white men in Hollywood finding it too challenging to believe that Bruce Lee might have really been good at what he did and maybe even knew how to do it better than them.
I’m tired of hearing from white men in Hollywood that he wasn’t really a martial artist and just did it for the movies. My father lived and breathed martial arts. He taught martial arts, wrote about martial arts, created his own martial art, innovated martial arts training, and refused to compete in martial arts tournaments because he believed combat should be “real.” He had no parallel as a martial artist. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he had no parallel as a martial artist on film, either.
I’m tired of white men in Hollywood barely footnoting the impact he had on the action film genre and fight choreography, or the proliferation of and interest in martial arts he sparked globally, or the number of people and communities he continues to inspire and touch with his performances, philosophies, teachings and practices while casually downplaying how his accomplishments have lifted spirits and become a source of pride for Asian Americans, communities of color and people around the world, and how he accomplished all of this by the age of 32.
And while we’re at it, I’m tired of being told that he wasn’t American (he was born in San Francisco), that he wasn’t really friends with James Coburn, that he wasn’t good to stuntmen, that he went around challenging people to fights on film sets, that my mom said in her book that my father believed he could beat up Muhammad Ali (not true), that all he wanted was to be famous, and so much more.
And of course, this doesn’t apply to all white men in Hollywood; I’ve worked with some really wonderful collaborators and partners. But I’ve come across enough of them over the years (and not just in Hollywood) who want to mansplain Bruce Lee to me and use Bruce Lee when and how it suits them without acknowledging his humanity, his legacy, or his family in the process that a bit of a pattern has emerged. I’m also not saying that no one is allowed to have a negative opinion of Bruce Lee. I’m saying your opinion might be colored by personal or cultural bias, and that there’s a pattern. Just notice the pattern in all the people Mr. Tarantino cites in the case he builds against my father. Just saying …
And I understand he died when I was 4, but I am still one of the very few people on this planet other than my mother who has met and spoken with most everyone who ever knew him (the promoters and detractors alike), who has read his extensive writings on all manner of subjects, gone through his personal daytimers and library, who has trained in Jeet Kune Do, who has childhood memories of him, and who knows what it was to be loved by him. I think I’m more of an authority on Bruce Lee at this point than most people, not to mention having looked after his legacy for the last 21 years.
Look, I understand what Mr. Tarantino was trying to do. I really do. Cliff Booth is such a badass and a killer that he can beat the crap out of Bruce Lee. Character development. I get it. I just think he could have done it so much better. But instead, the scene he created was just an uninteresting tear-down of Bruce Lee when it didn’t need to be. It was white Hollywood treating Bruce Lee as, well, white Hollywood treated him — as a dispensable stereotype. But that was Mr. Tarantino’s creative device that he chose, so he initially claimed, though now he seems to be arguing that this is actually an accurate portrayal of Bruce Lee and is what would have happened if indeed Cliff Booth (a fictitious person) and the real Bruce Lee (if he were a mediocre, arrogant martial artist) had squared off. Whaaa?
The fact that Mr. Tarantino espouses that my father could have been easily tricked by a fictitious character and would only really be a threat in a competition setting like Madison Square Garden speaks volumes about everything he does not know about Bruce Lee and JKD. But enough tit-for-tat.
In closing, at a time when Asian Americans are being physically attacked, told to “go home” because they are seen as not American, and demonized for something that has nothing to do with them, I feel moved to suggest that Mr. Tarantino’s continued attacks, mischaracterizations and misrepresentations of a trailblazing and innovative member of our Asian American community, right now, are not welcome.
Mr. Tarantino, you don’t have to like Bruce Lee. I really don’t care if you like him or not. You made your movie and now, clearly, you’re promoting a book. But in the interest of respecting other cultures and experiences you may not understand, I would encourage you to take a pass on commenting further about Bruce Lee and reconsider the impact of your words in a world that doesn’t need more conflict and fewer cultural heroes.
Under the sky, under the heavens, we are one family, Mr. Tarantino, and I think it’s time for both of us to walk on.