BE WATER: Director Bao Nguyen Reveals Bruce Lee’s Fight Against Racism in America

Bao Nguyen takes on Bruce Lee, the world’s greatest Asian icon, in an insightful new documentary for ESPN.

Be Water Bruce Lee
Photo: Bruce Lee Family Archive

It’s been 47 years since Bruce Lee’s shocking death at age 32. He would have been 80 this November. And yet, his groundbreaking legacy is as compelling and relevant as ever. Lee was the first global Asian celebrity and remains the most prominent. 

Lee’s legacy can still be felt around the world. BE WATER, a new documentary on Bruce Lee, premieres on ESPN on June 7. From director Bao Nguyen, the film combines rare archival photos and footage along with revealing interviews with Lee’s surviving family and friends, offering an intimate look at the world’s most famous martial arts master. It’s part of ESPN’s highly acclaimed 30 For 30 documentary series, which presents 30 documentaries on athletes and celebrities per volume and initially launched in 2009 for ESPN’s 30th anniversary. 

Bruce Lee’s profound impact on fitness and bodybuilding makes him deserving of the ESPN spotlight. He was a pioneer on many fronts but few knew the real Bruce Lee. Often imitated, and never duplicated, there are countless Bruceploitation films, so many that it comprises a genre of its own. No other celebrity can claim as many imitators as Lee, not even Elvis. Just last year, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood caused an uproar for its negative portrayal of Lee

Also last year, Cinemax produced the first season of Warrior, developed from a proposed script by Lee. Warrior is attributed as the original source of the Kung Fu TV series of the early 70s. What’s more, when Pro-Democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong last August, Lee’s philosophical approach to life “Be Water” became a rallying cry for non-violent protesters. Bruce Lee T-shirts are still hot sellers and there are dozens of Lee-inspired designer sneakers from Converse, Nike, Reebok, and Vans. In fact, Reebok has revived its 2017 Reebok Shaq Attaq Modern, inspired by Lee’s signature yellow-and-black jumpsuit from Game of Death, in honor of the release of BE WATER.

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Bao Nguyen is a Vietnamese American filmmaker whose directorial feature documentary debut, Live from New York opened the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and was broadcast on NBC just prior to the 41st season premiere of the documentary’s subject, Saturday Night Live. BE WATER premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. 

Nguyen spoke with Den of Geek about Lee’s coming to America, his Asian American experience, and current protests.

Den of Geek: Let’s begin with an easy one, what’s your favorite Bruce Lee film?

Bao Nguyen: I would say my favorite Bruce Lee film would be Enter the Dragon because it’s the only real film where you can hear his voice as himself, instead of him being dubbed or dubbing someone else. And it’s also him, he had such a hand in terms of writing and just more a part of the production. It seemed like he was the most himself in that role.

What made you want to take on Bruce Lee?

I think just as an Asian American boy growing up in the United States, I didn’t really see that many people that looked like me on screen. So I was always just enamored the first time I saw Bruce Lee on screen. I was always fascinated by him as a symbol. I didn’t really know him as a man, as a human being so I felt like I wanted to unpack the myth of it and looking at him through the lens of being an outsider, as an “other,” as an immigrant American, and as an Asian American. I thought that perspective for me as a filmmaker was something that added to the theme.

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You see in the film there’s a lot of racial history about how Asians and Asian Americans were treated when they first came to America. And I thought that part of the story was quite interesting, and also understanding the struggle of being an actor in Hollywood, especially an Asian American actor in the 1960s.

Yeah, those struggles are still present.

Exactly. So I think it’s finally when they’re talking about the stereotypes and the progress that still has to be made in Hollywood and also in society in general.

When you were unpacking the Bruce Lee myth, what surprised you the most?

I would say when you think of Bruce Lee, you have all these ideas of what it means, on confidence and masculinity. He’s always been presented as this martial arts deity. And what surprised me is the ways that I was able to connect to him as a human being, like him going through heartbreak after his first breakup with his girlfriend, Amy Sanbo, that we talked about in the film, and also his fears and anxieties about going to America.

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And ultimately at the end of the film, we also hear from his brother who doesn’t really talk about Bruce Lee so much anymore, but he talked about how Bruce Lee always feared growing old and growing frail. I think that was an interesting insight into a man who is obviously immortalized at the age of 32 when he was in the prime of his career and seemingly, his health, too.

I’m always astounded by how much documentation there was on Bruce, given he only lived to 32. What was your process for sorting through all that?

It seems like there’s a lot but there isn’t as much as we had hoped coming into this film. I think everything that I thought was pertinent to the story I wanted to tell about Bruce Lee is in the film. And a lot of the footage, since the film is entirely archival, we shot a lot of this archive to make it feel like it was the present day of Bruce Lee. It’s just like a certain impressionistic archival footage and even at times, trying to mix it with his own home-video footage. 

In terms of his writings and his photographs, there’s an abundance of that type of material. But if you think about what makes the film a film, moving images, there isn’t that much. In Hong Kong, it’s a very dense city so there’s not a lot of storage. So we found out early on that in the ’60s, ’70s, in Hong Kong, even though Bruce Lee was the biggest star in Asia at that time, they threw out all these interviews that they had of him because they just were like, “Oh, we don’t have enough room to keep these tapes.” So they taped over all these interviews that have been lost. 

So there aren’t that many times where you hear Bruce speak his voice. We tried as much as we can to have his voice be the main part of the film and obviously the lost interview with Pierre Berton is an important factor. But there’s been people looking for decades of long-lost footage of Bruce Lee. There was one piece of footage that was discovered last year where he, during the production of Green Hornet, and he was talking on camera that we used in the film. But that was found last year. So, there’s still maybe things out there but it’s been hard for Bruce Lee collectors, again, looking for the last 40 years.

What do you feel are some of the great misconceptions that fans have about Bruce?

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It’s hard to judge people on misconceptions. Because he died so young and in a way has become a symbol for a lot of things, people project their own life and experiences on Bruce Lee. Which I think is also the beauty of Bruce Lee and what he stood for, that you can aspire to have Bruce Lee be the symbol of the underdog, the symbol of the unlikely hero. 

But I think that people forget that he was human, that he went through struggles, had fears and vulnerabilities, and had a family and people that really loved him. And that was, him dying young is a personal tragedy. A tragedy for his loved ones more than anyone because it was a shock to them. 

We’ve mentioned it in the film when it talks about how people wonder about how he died. But for the people who knew him, I asked them all that question, and they felt it didn’t matter. They had to deal with the sorrow of losing a friend, losing a husband, losing a father. And that’s something that we need to remember when we’re thinking about Bruce Lee, his wife, too, that he was a human, that he was someone that affected the people closest to him. And I think when we’re trying to dive deep into all these different aspects of his life, then we forget the humanistic side of things.

What did you think of Tarantino’s take on Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood? Did you feel all the backlash was warranted?

As a filmmaker I think people have the freedom and independence to tell whatever story they like to tell. But I think it was very much Tarantino’s version of Bruce Lee. It was a caricature and our film is different from that. We are very much focused on who Bruce Lee was as a person and not an image of a person, as a caricature person, as a fictionalized person. We are aiming to tell a more complete and whole version of him. 

And so, I come from Vietnam, well my parents came from Vietnam, which is a communist country where there’s a lot of censorship in terms of culture and films, so I would never impose any type of censorship on a filmmaker. And I personally love Tarantino’s films. 

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Likewise.

When you’re dealing with something that’s real and you’re portraying a true person, and obviously in a documentary, you have a little bit more of a responsibility to that. And so, yeah, our two films are very different. So I think if people want to know more about Bruce Lee as a person, our film would be a better portal into that world.

There’s a detachment between fictional depictions and a documentary. But what struck me the most about that was that there’s that whole genre of Bruceploitation films, which are countless. Some of those Bruceploitation films are very derogatory.

I think Tarantino is one of the great American filmmakers. Bruceploitation films are very niche and films that only cinephiles really watch. I’m saying it’s not a mainstream film necessarily. With Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood obviously such a big deal, it’s part of the studio system. 

When we’re talking about the larger picture of how Asian Americans, we’re not given much screen time. So Bruce Lee is part of that history now. Bruce Lee in Tarantino’s film is part of that history of how Asian Americans are depicted in Hollywood. But you have to think of it in the larger sense of cinematic history and racial history. And that rubbed me the wrong way when you think of it in the larger context. 

One of the things about Bruceploitation is it is a singular genre. You don’t see any other celebrity having a following like that. He’s more impersonated than Elvis, which is intriguing. 

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Yeah, when you pass away in your prime there’s always this wonder of where you could have gone. Obviously, I think Bruce Lee is more in the realm of a James Dean or a Marilyn Monroe. But if he was to grow older it’s interesting to say what impact he would have had. Or if he would have been more, in terms of a decline or a different version of Bruce Lee, the same way Marlon Brando changed from his earlier Hollywood version to the one he became later on in life. So it’s hard to think about the hypotheticals, about what Bruce Lee would have turned into. 

I think he always wanted to bring Hong Kong and Asian cinema to Hollywood. So I think in terms of the talk about inclusion and representation and the images of the Asian in specifically Hollywood films, it would have progressed I would imagine, just because there would have been these opportunities. Enter the Dragon was such a box office success that Hollywood would have jumped to make more Bruce Lee films. And that would have been amazing to think of where we would be with Bruce Lee today in terms of the inclusion conversation.

With the pandemic, we have this rising xenophobic trend, “Sick Men of East Asia” [from Fist of Fury] takes on a whole new meaning now, right? Does this give you any concerns about releasing your documentary right now?

I think it’s important to release films that show these types of stories now. Because we’ve seen that culture, media, TV, film, they are really important nowadays because people are stuck at home and that’s what they’re absorbing. That’s the society that they’re seeing. They’re not interacting necessarily with people face to face. So how they see society is what they see reflected on the media that they’re watching. 

And so for me, again, what I mentioned earlier, as an Asian American I saw myself in Bruce Lee. But it’s also important how the whole of society sees Asian Americans. Because they can see them with Bruce Lee. They can see him as a hero, as the one who is fighting adversity, being the underdog. And also just understanding that Bruce Lee was Asian American and that there are other depictions of Asian Americans that exist that are positive, rather than the ones that are portraying, especially in the time of COVID, as being outsiders or bringing things to America, or just the negative portrayals that have been perpetuated by a lot of stereotypes and ignorance. 

I do hope that this film can help stir a conversation about what it means to be American, and that we all came over on different boats but we’re all in the same place now. And I think sometimes that part of Bruce Lee’s story is overlooked, the hardships that he had to overcome as an Asian coming to 1960s America where Asians were very much seen as the enemy or the villain. Because the Vietnam War was starting to stir up and the Korean War was a decade earlier. And then two decades earlier was World War II where America was fighting the Japanese. And so having these positive portrayals, I think, are really important, especially in this time of xenophobia and racism.

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I really liked your nod at the very end credits to the Hong Kong protests and their use “Be Water” slogan. That was very timely. What part of Lee’s “Be Water” philosophy do you think could be applied to the protests that we’re experiencing right now in America?

Well I think for this film itself, I think the idea of water, I wanted to think of America as being water. It’s always changing and when we hit these obstacles, think of this pandemic or police brutality as this rock that we have to move around and maneuver around and overcome really. And I think the protesters in Hong Kong have been able to utilize that philosophy and I think in today’s society we have to think of America still as an experiment. We’re a young country relative to the rest of the world. And people are coming over all the time. We always have to figure out where we’re evolving as a country, that we’re never staying stagnant, or again, always fluid like water. 

So that was something that I was always cognizant about when we were making the film. We interweaved these scenes of racial conflict and larger historical issues within Bruce’s story. I felt like Bruce always finds a way to get around these stereotypes of these moments of racial strife. And by doing that he was being like water. It’s subtle in this film, it’s not hitting you on the top of your head. But that was how I was approaching it. And that’s also why we never see a talking head interview in the modern day because it’s always about Bruce’s present time and how he was like water going through these different crevices of American history.

Had you hit on the title BE WATER and theme prior to the Hong Kong protests or were you already working that idea? 

I knew I didn’t want to put the word “dragon” in the title. And so I was like, “What resonates with me and what feels like the mood of this film?” And we just kept on going back to that quote. Our assistant editor, Alex Chong, she’s from Hong Kong. She was a student studying film in the UK, so she lives in the UK where we edited the film. But she always helped us inform what was going on in Hong Kong. 

And that was always in the back of our mind, the struggle and the strife that the underdog has to go through. I think we had to lock the title before we started seeing all these articles about people chanting “Be Water” or posting it. So it just went hand in hand. And I think it happened a bit coincidentally or maybe more serendipitously. 

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What is the biggest takeaway you want your viewers to have from your documentary?

I think there’s a lot of narratives and stories. And Bruce Lee has been around a long time, his name and his large fandom around him. And in no way is this film definitive. And I don’t think any filmmaker can make a definitive film about any one person. It’s a way to look at Bruce’s life and the struggles that he went through, and the world that he had to navigate as someone who was seen as an outsider, not just in America but also when he was in Hong Kong. 

So it was always this idea of how do we understand the struggles of Bruce Lee? And how do we understand the struggles of America at the same time? A Bruce Lee superfan will know most of these things that are in this film, but it’s breaking it down to hear from the people who knew him the most. So Amy Sanbo has never spoken about Bruce Lee on camera, his first girlfriend. So, understanding that he was learning from everyone he was meeting is an important aspect of this film that I think people should take away from. 

Again, he’s known as this huge teacher, a martial arts master, but he was really a student of America, of everyone he met, from Jesse Glover, his first student who learned martial arts because he was a victim of police brutality. And then, Amy Sanbo, his first girlfriend who was in the Japanese internment camp, and then obviously, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was a big proponent of civil rights and who helped Bruce Lee understand what being water meant, and what being water meant in America. And yeah, I think knowing that Bruce Lee learned as much as he taught is something that I took away. And I hope the audience takes away as well.

Be Water premieres on ESPN on June 7 and will be immediately available on ESPN+