Brad Pitt and Mike Moh in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)

Bruce Lee’s Daughter Is Understandably Unhappy About Her Father’s Portrayal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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While watching Quentin Tarantino’s 9th movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I realized that despite him being one of the most influential directors of my youth, the reverence I had for him as a filmmaker never recovered from his Hateful 8. I’m more aware now of his tendancy to lean into casual racism for a joke, use violence against women with wanton thoughtlessness, and to sometimes be more in love with his ideas than an actual storyline.

With Once Upon a Time, he gets to make a movie just for him and people equally in love with L.A. in the ’60s. While there are some amazing parts—Leonardo DiCaprio is truly amazing in this—it’s also a messy, meandering film that would be seen as lazy and narcissistic if it were made by anyone else. Still, besides the ending, one of the aspects that bothered me was the portrayal of Bruce Lee, played by Korean-American actor, Mike Moh.

**Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.**

In the film, we get a flashback from Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth (a war vet, stunt double, and killer of his wife), that explains why he isn’t working at the moment. While his boss, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guest spotting on The Green Hornet, Booth gets added to the stunt team. There, he comes across Bruce Lee, who did play the role of Kato in The Green Hornet from 1967-68 … an experience that caused the real Lee to return to China to make moves because Hollywood was super racist.

Here, we see Lee posturing, refering to himself as a lethal weapon, and saying that he could turn Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) into a “cripple.” This prompts Booth to call him out, and Lee challenges him to a fight. At first, Lee hits him with a jump kick, but they go again and Booth grabs his leg and throws him into a car.

The problem of this scene is twofold. First of all, Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, who has been key in protecting her father’s legacy, highlights that her father is one of the few characters in the movie being subjected to this kind of mockery, which is especially tacky considering the racism he went through in his actual life.

“I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie,” she said to The Wrap. “I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen … and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion.”

She added, “I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”

Instead of giving him nuance, Lee felt her father came off as an “arrogant asshole who was full of hot air,” instead of “someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”

The second thing that’s a problem is something that Lee said she experienced as she watched the film over the weekend. “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she said.

While I was watching the movie, it was really weird to hear people laughing at Bruce Lee just for stating things that are common. It’s a joke at Lee’s expense to take him down a notch, for a man whose presence and power changed the way Asian men were seen in media for generations.

Lee claims that her father was often challenged and tried to avoid fights. She did, however, like Moh in the role and said he did a good job with some of her father’s mannerisms, and his voice, “but I think he was directed to be a caricature.”

Matthew Polly, who wrote the biography Bruce Lee: A Life said that the argument that leads into the fight with Booth in the movie would never have happened, because of the respect that Lee had for Clay. “Bruce revered Cassius Clay (Ali); he never trash talked him in real life. Bruce never used jumping kicks in an actual fight. And even if he did, there wasn’t a stuntman in Hollywood fast enough to catch his leg and throw him into a car,” Polly said.

When thinking about why Tarantino portrayed Lee this way, Polly proposed the following:

Given how sympathetic Tarantino’s portrayal of Steve McQueen, Jay Sebring, and Sharon Tate is, I’m surprised he didn’t afford the same courtesy to Lee, the only non-white character in the film. He could have achieved the same effect–using Bruce to make Brad Pitt’s character look tough–without the mockery. I suspect the reason Tarantino felt the need to take Bruce down a notch is because Lee’s introduction of Eastern martial arts to Hollywood fight choreography represented a threat to the livelihood of old Western stuntmen like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who were often incapable of adapting to a new era, and the film’s nostalgic, revisionist sympathies are entirely with the cowboys.

It’s disappointing to see Tarantino turned a man who was so groundbreaking in so many ways into an egotistical punching bag, especially considering all we know about Lee’s struggles in Hollywood. After that scene, all we see Moh do is train other white actors in stunts. He remains an accessory, not much unlike the movie’s treatment of Tate herself.

(via The Wrap, image: Andrew Cooper/Sony)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.