Former basketball player-turned-author and cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is “disappointed” with Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”.
In a new op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Jabbar explains that he feels “conflicted” by Tarantino’s “one-dimensional” portrayal of his friend Lee because he is such a fan of the filmmaker.
“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 writes.
“This controversy has left me torn. Tarantino is one of my favourite filmmakers because he is so bold, uncompromising and unpredictable. There’s a giddy energy in his movies of someone who loves movies and wants you to love them, too,” he continues. “I attend each Tarantino film as if it were an event, knowing that his distillation of the ’60s and ’70s action movies will be much more entertaining than a simple homage. That’s what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness.”
Calling the late Lee his “friend and teacher,” Abdul-Jabbar touches on his relationship with the martial artist and the conversations they had about the representation of Asian-Americans in pop culture at the time.
“I first met Bruce when I was a student at UCLA looking to continue my martial arts studies, which I started in New York City. We quickly developed a friendship as well as a student-teacher relationship. He taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries,” he writes. “During our years of friendship, he spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV. The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants.”
Recalling times when he was with Lee when his friend was challenged to a fight by “some random jerk,” Abdul-Jabbar adds Lee’s real fight was against stereotyping – much like the way he feels he is portrayed in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”.
“First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option. He felt no need to prove himself,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “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.”
Abdul-Jabbar isn’t the only person speaking out against Lee’s depiction in the new Tarantino film. Lee’s widow and daughter have both criticized Lee’s portrayal as an “arrogant punching bag” and Chinese “caricature.”