Bruce Lee was rejected by Hollywood. But that’s not an inspirational story, isn’t it? Many are rejected by Hollywood and in life too. The thing with Bruce Lee was, he exploded, he fought back, preserved his anger and emotions, and channelized it towards the goal. He expressed his rage through Cinema. Be water, the documentary film lauds Bruce Lee’s effort and journey in which he conquered stardom with just 4 feature films as a lead. However, he left too soon.
Directed by Bao Nguyen, Be Water prominently focuses on Bruce Lee’s career in Hollywood from the time he arrived in America to the time he left America for Hong-Kong, where he made four feature films. Enter the Dragon was his last film, but it took over Hollywood like a sandstorm. Everyone celebrated his legacy, we still do. But how did Lee create it? What was so special about him? Let’s dig in.
Rage of Self-Expression
Typecasting is the lethal enemy of an artist. Often created by the perception of society, it limits an artist’s self-expression, limiting him to do roles that suit his physical personality, undermining his emotional/ mental capabilities. Bruce Lee was labeled as an Asian man in Hollywood. During the 60s, when Bruce Lee arrived in Hollywood, Asian men were neutral regarding the racist structure of the country. They weren’t hated, neither accepted. In most cases, they were only accepted as laborers or servants.
Hollywood is Racist because America is, and that is what Bruce Lee faced majorly in his tenure in America. He was casted in side-kick roles to a leading man. But no studio owner even cared to lift their head and look at him and realize that he could be casted as a leading man, because he didn’t fit the stereotype.
Lee, altogether dropped the idea of acting and started focusing on his martial arts school, where he was doing good. He shifted his focus on teaching rather than acting and was having some serious Hollywood men like Steve Mcqueen as his disciples. It wasn’t an escape for him, he wanted to popularize martial arts to let the Americans know, what the Chinese are known for. In a way, he was trying to seed in culture in the American society. But, his heart, his heart was always to become the leading man. Nobody can have control over the dreams they have, even if they have controlled their body and mind.
Be Water documentary narrates Bruce Lee’s big Hollywood break in a television series called The Green Hornet, which was a rip-off of Batman and Robin, and as predictable, Lee was cast as Hornet’s hinge man, Kato. Initially, Lee had no lines on the screen, just mere presence with Green Hornet and some martial arts moves but he peeped in like water and showcased his talent. When the show ended, Lee had to start from the beginning, because he was just a side-kick and they didn’t bring the audience. He was devastated and locked himself in the house. All he did was read, read and write.
“He realized pretty quickly, that the impact that he was wanting to make was not gonna be possible just by auditioning the roles. He felt like the only way for him to showcase himself was to create his own roles.”
Writing for Himself
After a series of endless typecast roles, where Lee was only invited to act as a servant or a sidekick, which was apparently the perception Hollywood had of Asian men. Lee wanted to break the chains and so he wrote a role for himself and pitched it to the studios.
As per Be Water documentary film, Kung Fu (1972) Television Series which was written for Bruce Lee, had an American actor cast as Shaolin Monk. Both ironical and comical, Hollywood heads thought that America is not ready for an Asian Hero.
This was the final blow to Bruce Lee’s rage. He was disgusted with the whole mindset, the whole structure, and the whole system. He exploded with anger and was determined to do something about that in his own way. Fortunately, Bruce Lee had a medium, it was Cinema and Martial arts, and he mixed both.
“If you neglect me, if you don’t value me, it will be your loss. You will be agreeing to me in the future.”
From the Ashes, a Fire Rises
Be Water documentary starts with Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee narration over Bruce Lee’s screen test. She says, “he just believed in himself so deeply. He knew he had something to share, that was worthwhile, and he knew how hard he was willing to work.” All those rejections, the racism, and the indifferences he faced in Hollywood became the inspiration and the driving force behind his art. We all get melancholic in life, but only a few of us are conscious enough to turn it into art. Lee saw through the facts, what exactly he was standing against, and was adamant to prove that an Asian can be a strong leading man.
When he arrived in Hong Kong, he made a low-budget martial arts film, Fist of Fury (1972). It was Bruce Lee’s opportunity to showcase all his thoughts, philosophy about the leading man. The peculiar thing about his martial arts film was the choreography of the action sequence. The world had not witnessed the fighting saga and the way distilled emotions into a passionate explosion, it took over the world of films like a storm.
Strike when the iron is hot, and at the time when Lee released his martial arts films, there was unrest among the Chinese people. They had been ruled, suppressed, indiscriminate, and butchered by foreign powers. There was a wave of underlying anger beneath their skin and Bruce Lee pressed that vein through his films. The Chinese audience couldn’t control but laud Lee’s action sequence when he liberated the values and traditions by smashing the head of the oppressor. But it wasn’t that Lee’s films were a mere show, it resounded a deeper philosophy as compared to any other action film that was made at the time. All those philosophies came from his own knowledge of martial arts and the knowledge he had gained in the years he locked himself in the house and read.
“We need emotional content. Don’t think, feel. It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
Enter the Dragon (1973) was his last film, where he was recalled by Hollywood to be cast as a leading man. Hollywood couldn’t stop but rave about the legacy Lee had created through his films in Hong-Kong. All throughout the world, people cherished and loved his films, his moves, and Lee in particular. However, Bruce Lee never saw the light of his most ambitious project, he died too soon.
Though in the archived tapes used by the documentary, Be Water, Lee says, “Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die someday, without fulfilling all my ambitions, I feel no sorry. I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability.”
Fortunately, Bruce Lee completed his ambitions of becoming the Hollywood Leading man. The only remorse, he created a saga through just 4 films, and what impact he would have made if he lived a little longer.
An ending note to all those passionate filmmakers or actors trying to go big in any film industry. “Don’t accept that you are this stereotype image that is cast upon you by others. Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it.”
Be Water, the documentary film not only narrates the tale of the dragon who burnt Hollywood’s perception of leading men and Asians but also acts as a strong motivator to all those aspiring and budding creators/artists around the world who face rejection each day in their lives. People like Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone are not just film stars but an example that if you can channelize your anger and make it a part of your own expression, then, my dear friend, you can conquer the world, as they did. Be soft and ferocious like Water. I would really recommend this documentary because the legacy and efforts of such a wonderful man should be carried forward and forward till eternity.
Be Water is streaming on ESPN+.
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