Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood takes some significant liberties with the way history actually transpired, but it seems that the thing people have the biggest issue with isn't how the movie deals with Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, but rather how it handles Bruce Lee. First the actor's daughter called out Quentin Tarantino for the portrayal, and now Lee's friend former NBA Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, has done the same.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar starred alongside Bruce Lee in the actor's last film, Game of Death, but he was a longtime personal friend of Bruce Lee as well. In a new column for THR, Abdul-Jabbar says that, while he loves Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker, he thinks the director's decision's regarding Lee's portrayal in the new movie are sloppy and a bit racist. He writes...
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. This controversy has left me torn. Tarantino is one of my favorite 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. 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.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bruce Lee is played by Mike Moh and only has one significant scene. In the flashback sequence, we see Bruce, on the set of his show The Green Hornet, speaking in front of an assembled group of crewmen. He is boasting about his fighting abilities and how he would easily be able to defeat Cassius Clay if the two met.
A stuntman, named Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, takes issue with Lee's bragging and Lee challenges him to a little light sparring. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar specifically calls out this idea in his piece as well, claiming that he witnessed similar events happen with Bruce Lee in real life, and the actor never wanted to fight.
I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. He always 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.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's comments come following something of a war of words between Bruce Lee's daughter Sharon and director Quentin Tarantino. She was the first to publicly criticize the portrayal of Bruce Lee in the movie. Tarantino, for his part, claimed that his version of Lee wasn't as far from the real thing as Sharon Lee was claiming, and that the scenario in the movie was ultimately fictional.
Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood chooses to portray what Bruce Lee's friends and family are calling a stereotyped version of the actor rather than the real man. In the end, the movie isn't trying to be historically accurate, but that isn't necessarily a good reason to do it.
You can judge for yourself, Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood is in theaters now.