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ESPN’s Bruce Lee “Be Water” Doc May Be the Greatest Portrait of the Icon

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Bruce Lee is a true legend — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the Asian Hollywood icon.

But Bruce’s story is one that’s been told, mythologized, and bastardized hundreds of times. We’ve seen hackneyed, dumbed-down depictions of Bruce as a cheesy street brawler, and we’ve seen his story sidelined in order to shoehorn in white side characters; a reflection of his own life, in which Bruce had to constantly fight off white saviorism — like when network execs replaced Bruce with David Carradine in Kung Fu, a show and a role which Bruce had literally created for himself.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Depiction of Bruce Lee as “Arrogant A-Hole” Enrages Chinese Social Media

As recently as last year, Quentin Tarantino came under fire for his “disrespectful” depiction of Bruce as an arrogant hothead in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a plot device used to further the narrative of the two white main characters.

Now, ESPN and director Bao Nguyen have released the newest installment of their 30 for 30 series, a Bruce Lee documentary called Be Water — and critics are rather pleased.




IGN‘s Matt Kim wrote that Nguyen “dives deeper than than anyone’s gotten previously to who Lee was before icon status.”

Slate wrote that Be Water “is best when exploring the subject of race, a topic that it approaches with rare sensitivity for an ESPN production.”

The film even received a promotional song from longtime fan RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan:

Though Bruce lived his life between the United States and Hong Kong, his identity as a hero of Asian representation transcends borders, and fans in mainland China were quick to consume the new production.

“Bruce Lee challenged the discrimination of Americans and Europeans against people of Chinese blood,” wrote one Weibo user.

“Bruce Lee is god-tier, and an idol to me for many years,” wrote another. “It’s precisely because of him that I trained from a very weak body to a very strong body. Thank you brother Lee!”

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In the end, Be Water is just one of many accounts of the life of Bruce Lee. But thanks to director Bao Nguyen, and firsthand accounts from Lee’s daughter Shannon and his widow Linda Lee Cadwell, it may be one of the greatest.

Watch the Bruce Lee documentary Be Water on ESPN+.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers. He blogs about China and Asia on Instagram: @this.is.adan