Movies & TV / Columns

Who’s Right and Wrong in the Quentin Tarantino/Bruce Lee Controversy?

August 17, 2019 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Bruce Lee

While most thought the debate over Quentin Tarantino’s representation of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would blow over, the story continues to pick up steam and has even drawn NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into the mix.

Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, has been vocal in her feelings on it and responded to Tarantino’s latest comments pretty pointedly.

“He could shut up about it,” Lee told Variety when asked how Tarantino could fix the situation. “That would be really nice. Or he could apologize or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.’”

This was in answer to Tarantino defending his depiction of the martial arts icon, who was portrayed onscreen by Mike Moh. In the movie, Lee was shown to be egotistical and arrogant.

“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino said. “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.”

Lee’s daughter disagrees.

“One of the things that’s troubling in his response is that, on the one hand, he wants to put this forward as fact and, on the other hand, he wants to stay in fiction,” she added. She went on to say that her father’s confidence was sometimes construed as arrogance and admits that he wasn’t a “perfect man.”

“[Tarantino] can portray Bruce Lee however he wanted to, and he did,” Shannon Lee said. “But it’s a little disingenuous for him to say, ‘Well, this is how he was, but this is a fictional movie, so don’t worry too much about it.’”

Adding to things, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took time to weigh in, saying Tarantino had an obligation to present Lee in a more factual manner and accusing him of failing as an artist and a person.

“[F]ilmmakers have a responsibility when playing with people’s perceptions of admired historic people to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a column for the Hollywood Reporter.

“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,” he wrote. “But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.”

Abdul-Jabbar went on to write that he is a huge fan of Tarantino’s work and is torn over this.

“That’s what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option,” he went on to say. “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.”

What’s the right answer here? Was Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee disrespectful? Should we give artists leeway when fictionalizing events and actual people? Sound off in the comments!