SCREENCRUNCH: ESPN’s 30 for 30 ‘Be Water’

Published August 5, 2020, 11:25 PM

by MB Lifestyle

Bruce Lee and how to find joy in times of oppression and fear

By Karl De Mesa

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water”

That Bruce Lee was a singularly titanic presence at the intersection of pop culture, entertainment, and martial arts is undeniable.

It’s the rare martial artist who can’t recognize Lee’s face or quote some of his teachings. Rarer still is the practitioner who can’t trace the influence of his principles and techniques on their own style. Because that’s just the kind of across-the-board power Lee had, it spilled over from fighting into philosophy, politics, and even self-help—it’s also hard to miss the placards in the recent Hong Kong protests declaring “Be formless, be shapeless, be like water” to inspire the residents to continue their civil disobedience.

In his many facets, the parallels of Bruce Lee’s struggles and life as an entertainer, educator, and activist for representation of Asians in film is what director Bao Nguyen’s documentary for ESPN’s famous 30 for 30 series, released on June 7,is primarily about.

Sure, there are documentaries aplenty about Lee in his various aspects. But the Vietnamese-American Nguyen achieves an exceptional catharsis of atmosphere and authenticity with Be Waterthat is strangely singular on a topic as well-expounded on as Lee’s biography.He’s done this not just through rare access to Lee’s family—mainly his wife Linda Lee Caldwell and their daughter Shannon (now the CEO of the family companies and official caretaker of her father’s legacy and image)—and combined those with rare archival footage, zero on-screen talking heads, the testimonials in audio, and excellent sound design and music. The overall effect is uplifting and compelling, even I daresay a gestalt that’s poetic. 

Even for fans who’ve already watched his movies thrice over or read his books and seen other, arguably more detailed and completist documentaries, this is a must-see.

The familiar strains of the narrative are all there, from being born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, how he struggled to set up his Gung Fu schools, his early yet frustrating success in Hollywood as a sidekick, his rebirth in Hong Kong as an action hero, the founding of what would become his Jeet Kune Do (JKD) system, and his tragic death by cerebral edema in the summer of 1973.This is as legit as they come since, between those familiar strains, are details that are usually glossed over or even generally kept only with those in his inner circle. For example, in the 1960s there were only iterations of yellowface caricatures in Western media and Hollywood, yet when Lee bagged the role of Kato in ABC’s The Green Hornet and he had even persuaded the producers to give him speaking lines, his check remained that of an extra, an appalling, abysmally low rate that saw the Caucasian lead star Van Williamspaid as much as triple the amount. Another little known fact was how Lee essentially grew up in the back stages of theatrical productions. Being the son of a Cantonese opera singer he was given some small roles in Hong Kong films as a boy and a teenager, which the film posits is where he got his early education in confidence and in the applications of charisma. 

On July 24, the non-profit organizationAll of Us Movement hosted one of the rare post-screening discussions about the movie with director Bao Nguyen, Jeff Chang (a film and cultural critic featured in the film), W Kamau Bell (a pre-eminent Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do Scholar), and Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee.

THICKER THAN WATER The show’s promotional poster

While most of the conversation revolved around the making of the movie and the obstacles they had in the filmmaking process, some of the most interesting areas covered the teachings of Bruce Lee as they might pertain to modern life and situations where systemic abuse, neglect, and discrimination can lead to what’s happening now, during a pandemic of all things.

“You could have said it was 90 minutes of just the best scenes with movies,” said W Kamau Bell on how the documentary was a unique achievement. “But the fact is I didn’t know I needed a film that reminded me who [Lee] is as a person and that there’s stuff I didn’t know. So, to learn about his early girlfriend and to learn about his political life, and learn about his multi-racial group of friends was great. But also to clearly frame Bruce Lee as an anti-racist before that was a term, that he was just,naturally, an anti-racist using it for good. Even the ways in which he put black people in his movies, they’re not all versions of blaxploitation.”

Bell isn’t just talking about how Lee was a symbol of cultural cross pollination but also in light of the demand for justice after the death of George Floyd, how back then he had a deep and very empathic understanding of the systemic oppression against African-Americans. This was especially true since one of his first batch of JKD students was Jesse Glover, a black man who had been a victim of police brutality.

Riffing on this, culture and film critic Jeff Chang opined that “Hollywood is racist because America’s racist”—which is why he declared in the documentary that “Bruce’s presence on the screen is a form of protest.”

It’s well known that one of Bruce Lee’s many frustrations was the sting of being different in a decade that supposedly prided itself in openness, e.g. the ’60s and ’70s. Hence, the documentary traces the complex power dynamics of race relations that Lee had to navigate and eventually why he felt that he needed to stake out on his own in Hong Kong after getting kicked off The Green Hornet.

RISING TIDE A still from Be Water by Bao Nguyen, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Now, as it was at the height of his popularity in movies and the success of his JKD schools, Lee has become a symbol of hope to the underdog. But what might his advice be if he had lived to see the strangeness of our current age? What would Bruce Lee do if he was faced with rising fascism, race violence, and the systemic curtailing of freedoms?

“I got all these messages from people from different racial groups, different communities, and many activists, and they said ‘Thank you’ because with the grief of Covid and then obviously the anger of police brutality they said the film was sort of this breathing moment. For them it’s a moment to feel inspired. Andthat’s all I could hope for when people watch the film is that it gives them a little bit of inspiration and a little bit of context to what’s going on,” said director Bao Nguyen.

“One of the biggest struggles that we have as humans is the struggle against our own minds,” Shannon Lee replied to Nguyen, expounding on his thoughts.“And with everything that’s going on, it’s easy to get angry, it’s so easy to get shut down, it’s so easy to fall into depression and fear and rightfully so. One of the things my father did in his life that made a huge difference was he didn’t just train his body, but he also trained his mind. And he cultivated the best possible attitude and stood up for equanimity.”

Shannon Lee continued:“As a martial artist in particular, [my father] knew how to managehis emotions, and to stay focused on the goal of the life he wanted to live. A good martial artist doesn’t forget their training when they get punched, so we have to be in this mindset… He said:‘A warrior is the average man with laser like focus.’I’m not saying it’s easy to keep it together when the whole world is on fire and burned to the ground, but that’s our work.”

In 1967, Bruce Lee finally put a name to his martial expression and called it Jeet Kune Do, or “the way of the intercepting fist.” It’s a hybrid philosophy heavily influenced by the personal philosophy and experiences of Lee having studied many systems, including the Wing Chun of his first mentor Yip Man.

Now abbreviated as JKD, it found popularity in Enter the Dragon, when Lee was asked “What’s your style?” and he replied “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.” One of the core pillars of JKD was to have an adaptive style, hence the exhortation to “Be water, my friend,” which he explained in an interview as“If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash.”

During the Q&A discussion, Nguyen drew a parallel with what might be the mindset and outlook of Bruce Lee through the underlying philosophy of JKD during these times, of how the underdog and the minority might find joy in life during such a time of fear and oppression where the opposition only understands a dialectic of power. 

“…The intercepting fist, in so many ways, reflects this idea, this outlook: It’s intercepting because you’re not going to start something,” explained Nguyen.“You’re here to protect yourself, to fight for what’s right. So we got literally a situation where the opposition is basically, ‘Hulk crush!’ It’s like they only know pure force. So JKD is this notion:You could be five-foot-seven and 135 pounds, but if you are set the right way and you have your mind focus, then you can achieve justice. You can be that intercepting fist.”

You can watch Be Water in the Philippines on ESPN on 5 or the ESPN App.