NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has joined those speaking out against director Quentin Tarantino’s divisive portrayal of Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” writing Friday that seeing the film turn the martial arts icon into a punchline was “disappointing” and “disturbing.”
Calling the new film’s depiction “sloppy and somewhat racist,” Abdul-Jabbar — a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter — explained that Lee was his friend and teacher when he played basketball at UCLA. (Abdul-Jabbar later starred in Lee’s 1972 film “Game of Death.”)
Echoing other criticism of Tarantino’s film, particularly from Lee’s daughter, Shannon, Abdul-Jabbar argued its exaggerated version of Lee (played by Korean American actor and martial artist Mike Moh) was inconsistent with the man he knew, and “harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle.”
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.
“I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. 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 wrote. “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.”
In the film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as fading TV actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stunt double and right-hand man Cliff Booth, Lee challenges Booth to a fight.
Booth then pummels the martial arts star into a car so hard that it leaves a dent, an incident meant to demonstrate how Booth is still a formidable stuntman, despite his declining career.
As Abdul-Jabbar pointed out, “the scene is complicated by being presented as a flashback, but in a way that could suggest the stuntman’s memory is cartoonishly biased in his favor.”
Describing his admiration for Tarantino’s films, Abdul-Jabbar said he expected “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” to “be much more entertaining than a simple homage,” consistent with the director’s style, but that depicting Lee as a punchline was “a lapse of cultural awareness” on Tarantino’s part.
“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,” he wrote. “That’s why 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. Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. 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.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he wished that instead of making Lee “just another Hey Boy prop to the scene,” Tarantino had included more details about Lee, including “his struggle to be taken seriously in Hollywood,” the discrimination he experienced and his limited career opportunities as an Asian man.
Lee’s daughter Shannon has repeatedly made similar points about seeing her father as an “arrogant punching bag” in the film.
“It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she told The Wrap last month.
A representative for Tarantino did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism Friday.
The filmmaker continues to defend the portrayal, saying last week that “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy.”
“The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up,” Tarantino said while promoting the film in Moscow. “I heard him say things like that, to that effect.”
In response, Shannon Lee said she wished the director would either “shut up,” apologize or acknowledge his faults.
“He could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was,’” she told Variety.
As HuffPost’s Matt Jacobs reported earlier this month, the scene was originally slated to be even more one-sided against Lee. But both Pitt and one of the film’s stunt coordinators, Robert Alonzo, who is Asian American, pushed back and persuaded Tarantino to change it.
“There’s a certain mythology and mysticism about who Bruce Lee is, which is understandable. Being an Asian American myself, I definitely related to how Bruce was a symbol of how Asians should be portrayed in movies, instead of the old ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ model that was really prevalent back in the day,” Alonzo said. “I had a difficult time choreographing a fight where he lost. Everyone involved was like, ‘How is this going to go over?’ Brad was very much against it. He was like, ‘It’s Bruce Lee, man!’”