One thing has haunted Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from the moment its first trailer was released: the onscreen representation of Bruce Lee. No, not Mike Moh’s excellent performance, as the actor brings Lee back to life in impressive, even uncanny fashion. But fans were initially concerned about how Lee appeared to be losing a fight with Brad Pitt’s fictional stuntman on a studio back lot.
“Ah, not to worry,” other fans (including this writer) said at the time. “Lee was a stunt coordinator and martial arts instructor to the stars before he was headlining films, so this is likely just a rehearsal. He’s probably even training Pitt’s character for a scene!”
Instead, Lee is depicted in flashback on the set of The Green Hornet (although his hairstyle and sunglasses are inaccurate for that period of his career), running his mouth about his fighting philosophy and prowess, prompting a confrontation with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. A two out of three falls competition is cut short at a virtual draw after Cliff flings Lee into the side of an automobile. Critics, fans, and friends of the late martial arts legend have criticized it for being wildly out of character with how Lee behaved (and fought) in real life. Notably, Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, said the scene reduced her father to a “caricature” and “an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air.”
Tarantino, of course, has doubled down on the legitimacy of the film’s characterization of Lee, which hasn’t exactly helped matters.
But now another friend and student of Lee has spoken out, and it’s one who would be in a unique position to know: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The basketball legend, actor, and prolific writer was a student of Lee, and famously faced off against him in the ill-fated Game of Death, never properly completed in the wake of the star’s death. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Jabbar attempts to reconcile his feelings as a fan of Tarantino films and cinema with the knowledge that not only is the Lee presented onscreen inconsistent with the real man, but that it flies in the face of the hard work the man had to be put in to overcome Hollywood’s stereotypical view of Asians of the era.
“I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “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.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s piece is a wonderful read, and you should check out the whole thing over at The Hollywood Reporter.