This story just won’t die, regretfully for Quentin Tarantino.
First, we saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and saw a bit of a mockery scene in Mike Moh’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in movie lot where Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) holds his own against a brash, self-absorbed martial arts master.
Ever since that moment, and the best opening weekend for a Tarantino movie, we have experienced the following:
- Shannon Lee calls out the director for a wildly misleading concoction of her dad.
- Tarantino couldn’t leave well-enough alone and said “If I say Cliff would have beat Bruce, then he could” claiming the depiction was 100% fiction
- Shannon retorts that Quentin could have “just shut up” or “apologize.”
And now, we have this: NBA legend, Los Angeles Lakers’ Hall-of-Famer, and student of Jeet Kune Do, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned an editorial in THR that pretty much eviscerates the megalomaniac director.
Now before you go off about creative license and Tarantino clearly has the right to make up anything in a fictitious, alternate ending movie, Kareem agrees…but it doesn’t make it right:
Remember that time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kidney-punched a waiter for serving soggy croutons in his tomato soup? How about the time the Dalai Lama got wasted and spray-painted “Karma Is a Beach” on the Tibetan ambassador’s limo? Probably not, since they never happened.
But they could happen if a filmmaker decides to write those scenes into his or her movie. And, even though we know the movie is fiction, those scenes will live on in our shared cultural conscience as impressions of those real people, thereby corrupting our memory of them built on their real-life actions.
That’s the thing Quentin can’t get over. If Cliff Booth was walloping Brian Lee or Bobby Snee in a parking lot and hurling one of those guys against a car door, no problem.
It’s fiction, but since it was a real man who stood for certain things and acted certain ways, that scene became a sham and an insult to anyone who has studied, knew, or loved Bruce Lee.
Of course, 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.
And He’s a Fan Too
That’s Kareem and Bruce before during the shoot of Bruce’s metaphysical and psychological martial arts movie (and Bruce’s last) Game of Death in 1978. The man who would become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader was a student of Bruce Lee. He trained with the man, had fellowship with him, and worked with him.
Additionally, he’s very much a Quentin Tarantino fan as well. The editorial is written from a perspective of a man who understands Tarantino’s job and knew the legacy of Lee. And even he said Tarantino was out of bounds.
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.
That last sentence is the premise of Abdul-Jabbar’s editorial — cultural awareness. Again, the movie is fiction but the man was not. The plot was a fabrication but everything the Senpai stood for was very real. And to write that scene in that movie means Tarantino didn’t use his own awareness, or better yet, needs to get some.
That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.
The editorial contains personal accounts of Bruce Lee from the man who spent time with him, rather than fabricated memories of a guy who places Bruce in a movie. Quentin had a responsibility to his script, his fans, and his own self-conscience. Did he use it? Not if you ask Kareem.
Filmmakers have a responsibility when playing with people’s perceptions of admired historic people to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character.
Shannon was right. Quentin could have just shut up. He didn’t. He could have written that scene differently too. But he wouldn’t. What’s sad about all of this — that Bruce Lee never had to be in the movie in the first place.
It was 2.5 hours long and those five minutes never needed to be there. It wouldn’t have hurt the film in anyway. You can make Cliff Booth look like a badass in a bar fight, but no, he had to force Mike Moh to make Bruce Lee into this back alley braggart.
He could have, but he didn’t.
If he really did study Bruce Lee, he would have known the one quote of his that flies in the face of Tarantino’s inane decision and showed some restraint and respect.
Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.
Maybe next time, he will. Maybe.
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