NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has joined the chorus of criticism surrounding Quentin Tarantino's depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, slamming the portrayal of the martial arts icon as "somewhat racist".
A former icon with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, who also starred with Lee in Game of Death, Abdul-Jabbar is now a Hollywood Reporter columnist. And he took Tarantino to task over his great friend and teacher Lee in his latest column.
Abdul-Jabbar writes that filmmakers have a responsibility "when playing with people's perceptions of admired historic people" and that Tarantino's portrayal of Lee does not live up to this standard of maintaining a "basic truth" of the content of his character. He said he believes it could "corrupt" the memory of Lee in the shared cultural conscience.
"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," the 72-year-old wrote.
Abdul-Jabbar, who studied martial arts under Lee and after first meeting him at UCLA before they became great friends, said he was "torn" because of his admiration for Tarantino as a "bold" filmmaker who is able to distil the zeitgeist of an era into his work.
"That's what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness," he said.
Abdul-Jabbar said Lee spoke passionately to him about his frustrations with the stereotypical representation of Asian actors in film and television.
"The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants … Asian men were portrayed as sexless accessories to a scene, while the women were subservient," Abdul-Jabbar wrote.
"This was how African-American men and women were generally portrayed until the advent of Sidney Poitier and blaxploitation films. Bruce was dedicated to changing the dismissive image of Asians through his acting, writing and promotion of Jeet Kune Do, his interpretation of martial arts."
Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, escalated her row with Tarantino this week, saying "he could shut up" after the director doubled down on his belief that Lee was "kind of an arrogant guy".
She also fact-checked Tarantino's claim that her mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, wrote in her autobiography that Bruce Lee said he could beat up Muhammad Ali. In the film, Lee (played by Mike Moh) claims he would leave Ali "a cripple", something which prompts Brad Pitt's character, the burly stuntman Cliff Booth, to challenge him to a fight, which is it implied Booth wins.
The real life Lee's former training partner and Game of Death co-star Dan Inosanto said Lee "worshipped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on" and would never have said anything derogatory about him.
"That's why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way," Abdul-Jabbar added. "The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff, an ageing 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.
"I might even go along with the skewered version of Bruce if that wasn't the only significant scene with him, if we'd also seen a glimpse of his other traits, of his struggle to be taken seriously in Hollywood."
Abdul-Jabbar also recalled how several times when he was in public with Lee, a "random jerk" would loud challenge the Enter The Dragon star to a fight, and Lee would always politely decline and carry on about his day - contradicting the nature of Tarantino's scene.
"First rule of Bruce's fight club was don't fight - unless there is no other option," Abdul-Jabbar said.
"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."
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