Day 6·Q&A

How Bao Nguyen's documentary Be Water unpacks the human being behind the legend of Bruce Lee

In his documentary Be Water, Bao Nguyen sets out to understand Lee as young outsider and an immigrant trying to carve out a place in America in the time of counterculture, revolution and the Civil Rights movement.

Be Water is part of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series

Director Bao Nguyen attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere for Be Water at The Marc Theatre on Jan. 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

In December 1971, martial-arts legend Bruce Lee sat down for a television interview with Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton.

It's still considered Lee's most extensive English-language interview ever. Only 18 months later — on July 20, 1973 — he died at the age of 32.

But two words that he uttered in that 1971 interview — "be water" — are now the title of a new documentary as part of ESPN's series 30 for 30.

Be Water's director Bao Nguyen tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that his film reveals Lee as an outsider who tried to find a life in America during a period of intense racial and political upheaval.

Here's part of their conversation.

That 1971 interview with Pierre Berton — where Bruce Lee says "be water," and which you go to several times in your film — when you first saw it, how did it change the way that you saw Bruce Lee?

It was really eye-opening because my entry point into Bruce Lee has always been through his films and through his mythology, but never the person.

And I feel that with that Pierre Berton interview, you get a lot of insight into who he was: his body language, his charisma, his humour. There's a lightness to him in that interview.

Growing up as an Asian-American in the United States, do you remember the first time that you saw Bruce Lee on the screen?

I was about eight years old and Enter the Dragon was playing on a Saturday evening or something. And I just remember seeing someone who looked like me playing the hero.

It was something really extraordinary, because I was so used to seeing portrayals of the Asian or Asian-American male in a negative light. Mostly as the villain or the bumbling sidekick or comic relief.

To see someone who looked like me play the leading role in a film was really awe-inspiring.

Lee was born in San Francisco, he grew up in Hong Kong, and then he returns to the United States alone at the age of 18 — and really lives the immigrant experience there.

How do you think those early years in the U.S. contributed to his later determination to follow through with his dreams?

I think how he viewed America was very much formed in the people that he met in the first few years. Jesse Glover, who was his first student in Seattle, was an African-American man. He was a victim of police brutality. And that's why he wanted to learn martial arts, to defend himself against possible incidents of police brutality.

I think that relationship informed Bruce about how people treat race in America. As a person whose mother was of some European descent, Bruce had faced some racism in Hong Kong. And meeting someone who also faced discrimination created this bond between them.

Later on he meets Amy Sanbo — this Japanese-American woman who was in an internment camps. She really teaches Bruce the idea of being Asian-American.

I think Bruce had this idea of being Asian — because he had just come from Hong Kong — and he was assimilating to the idea of becoming American.

Bruce Lee in a file photo released by Columbia Pictures. (Columbia Picture/Associated Press)

But he didn't understand the synthesis of identity — this idea of being a hyphenated American.

Amy broke Bruce's heart, which I think is a really touching moment in the film. And that's when he sort of redirects his ambition. He really refocused toward building the schools — and the ideas of a school — and using that as a way to pursue the American dream.

He was in the United States in the 1960s. That's a period of major upheaval and racial conflicts. How did he see himself in relation to the counterculture that was happening around him?

People often see Bruce Lee as this figure who transcends race, right? He's a global cultural icon. People don't see him as an Asian-American icon.

At the time he was living here in the 1960s, you know, because he was still this "immigrant" American, this "other" American, he faced and struggled with race.

I think it really informed his trajectory and his philosophy of being fluid, and not following rigidity and systems and traditions.

I think that came to a head in many ways when he met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when Kareem was coming to him as a student. Kareem taught him a lot about the Civil Rights movement, the Black liberation movement.

But Bruce wasn't protesting and walking side by side with Dr. King and Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando. He was a struggling actor; it wasn't like he had a voice that could carry him.

And he saw his role as a change-maker more through his presence on screen, changing this idea of what it means to be Asian-American, what the Asian male could be on film and television.

Bruce Lee said that the 1970s ABC TV series Kung Fu, which was extremely popular, extremely successful, was his idea, and it was basically stolen from him. And then he wasn't cast to play the main part.

They infamously gave it to a non-Asian actor, David Carradine. What happened there?

America was just not ready, or at least Hollywood didn't think that America was ready for an Asian leading actor, right?

In hindsight you think, how could someone ever reject someone with the charisma of Bruce Lee, the onscreen presence? When you watch any of his films today it's enthralling.

His performances, his body movements, everything about him is something magnetic that's hard to be replicated by any other actor or performer — even up to this day, I would say.

So, like Jeff Chang — a cultural critic that we interviewed in the film — says: Hollywood's racist because America's racist, and it's this vicious cycle, right?

The images that we see on screen is sort of the way that we treat each other in society and how we interact with each other in the real world.

The staue of martial arts artist Bruce Lee is seen in front of the skyline at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong on Aug. 27, 2019. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

In the final chapter of his life, he's in Hong Kong, and the Hollywood which rejected him comes looking for him. He's in charge then; at last he has agency, and that's the end of his life. But when you hear the words Be Water, what is it that you think about?

For me, the idea of Be Water is having that fluidity in how you interact with people, and how you confront situations, because he was coming to an America that was maybe rigid, and that relied on these systems of oppression and racism — like they do today.

And so if I'm rejected by Hollywood, I'm just going to flow past it and then go to Hong Kong. He never let these rocks in his life stop him from where he wanted to go.

And I think Be Water is also the idea of America. It's always fluid, always influenced by the people who come to its shores, come to its borders and help shape it.

You could say even today that we're crashing against this rock, right? The rock of social inequality, of police brutality.

People are flooding the streets, not to keep going back to the metaphor of water, but hopefully we are able to break these examples of systemic racism that have been in America for way too long.

Written and produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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