The Controversial Portrayal of Bruce Lee in Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’

Quentin Tarantino and Bruce Lee

Quentin Tarantino’s films have long been subjects of admiration and critique. Known for his unique narratives, riveting dialogues, and notable soundtracks, the filmmaker rarely shies away from the controversial. This very streak landed him in hot water with his portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Fans and family members, particularly Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, took issue with the depiction of the iconic martial artist. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a fictionalized account of the past, but its inclusion of some real-life figures and actual events at time blurs the line between fantasy and biopic, which is likely part of the reason opposition to Bruce’s portrayal has been so fierce.

The Scene in Question

The movie showcases a fictional scene where Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) brags about his abilities, claiming he could cripple Muhammad Ali (referred to by his birth name of Cassius Clay in the film). Cliff Booth, a stuntman character portrayed by Brad Pitt, laughs off Lee’s claims, leading to a friendly “best out of three” sparring match. Bruce Lee is shown being thrown against a car, a move that many found not only disrespectful but also highly unrealistic, considering Lee’s prowess. But it’s the portrayal of Lee as an arrogant troublemaker that rubbed many the wrong way.

Why The Scene Drew Criticism

  1. Egotistical Portrayal: One of the primary criticisms was that Bruce Lee was shown as an arrogant and overly boastful figure, which contrasts with many accounts of him being humble about his capabilities. Shannon Lee mentioned in interviews that her father was often the target of challenges and thus would not have bragged about beating someone up, understanding the consequences such challenges could invite.
  2. Factual Inaccuracies: The claim that Bruce Lee boasted about defeating Muhammad Ali was another sticking point. There’s no evidence or record of Lee ever making such a statement. Instead, Lee had expressed admiration for Ali and had studied his moves extensively. He recognized and respected Ali’s skill.
  3. Undermining His Skills: The way the fictional stuntman, Cliff Booth, handled Bruce Lee in their duel was perceived as undermining the martial artist’s unparalleled skills. Fans and experts opined that the scene portrayed Bruce Lee as weaker than he was.
  4. Racial Stereotyping: Some critics felt that the scene played into the stereotype of Asians being boastful, but not necessarily being able to back up their claims, perpetuating a classic Hollywood trope.

Shannon Lee’s Perspective

Shannon Lee’s criticism of the portrayal resonated strongly with fans worldwide. She mentioned feeling disheartened seeing her father portrayed as an “arrogant a**hole.” Shannon has spent years preserving and sharing her father’s philosophy and teachings, and she felt that Tarantino’s portrayal was a step back in her efforts.

She expressed that while the movie was a work of fiction, the caricatured portrayal was hurtful. The real Bruce Lee, according to Shannon, had to work “ten times as hard” to achieve success in Hollywood due to his race, and he faced many challenges. She believed that the film failed to capture this struggle and instead chose a comedic and disrespectful representation.

Tarantino’s Response

Tarantino defended his representation of Bruce Lee, stating that the depiction was not meant to be malicious. He argued that it fit the narrative of the film and that the scene was a fictional portrayal, not a biographical recount, He has shown no regrets about the scene. For many, this defense wasn’t sufficient, given the immense respect and admiration Bruce Lee commands worldwide.

The Trouble with Fictional Films Involving Real People

Portraying real-life figures in fictional narratives is always a challenging endeavor. The line between artistic liberty and factual representation is thin and often blurred. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” serves as a testament to this. Bruce Lee’s legacy, built on respect, discipline, and unmatched skill, will undoubtedly endure. However, the portrayal in the film reminds us of the responsibility filmmakers hold when bringing real personalities into fictional tales.

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About the Author: Joshua Smith