ESPN may not be thriving these days due to a severe lack of live sports, but the company’s documentary arm is arguably having its biggest moment since the introduction of the 30 for 30 franchise. The Last Dance, the network’s 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan’s 1998 Chicago Bulls, became ESPN’s most-watched documentary ever in the midst of our still-in-progress, gameless pandemic. So naturally, the company had two more personality-centric projects waiting in the wings to hopefully continue the momentum and establish Sunday Night Sports Docs as a thing.
But last week’s endeavor—Lance, a two-part series on the disgraced cyclist—tanked, kinda hard in fact. Audiences may simply be sick of a guy who repeatedly lies to the public no matter how much money for cancer research he’s raised. But this week, ESPN debuts Be Water, a feature-length look at the life of martial arts icon Bruce Lee. And if you think Lee kicked ass on-screen (which, duh), you may leave this 95-minute exploration even more impressed
If all you know of Bruce Lee is Enter the Dragon or more recent pop-culture shoutouts in board games and Tarantino flicks, Be Water sets out to show how much of a badass the actor was without even considering his fists. This film may air on a sports network, but it’s less interested in Lee’s undeniable martial arts abilities and accomplishments and more intrigued by his societal ones. Leveraging Lee’s own personal writings, interviews with friends and loved ones, plus loads of family archival footage, viewers will get to see Lee the dogged creator, Lee the vulnerable philosopher, Lee the family man, Lee the Chinese American man at times still working through his own identity.
Director Bao Nguyen spent the last five years putting together this film, which is well-crafted enough to have earned a premiere at SXSW 2020 before that event met its COVID-19 fate. In his director’s statement on the film, Nguyen describes Lee as the first onscreen image of a strong Asian man he came across as a child (in a very modern flourish, Lee’s break was through a superhero franchise, playing sidekick Kato in a Green Hornet TV series). Learning about Lee’s off-camera life later only made the martial arts idol more inspiring to this director.
“I saw someone who looked like me for the first time, with an unapologetic confidence and magnetism that resonated on every inch of the silver screen,” Nguyen writes. “Bruce Lee is the epitome of the American story. Like him and so many other Americans before, my family, as Vietnamese war refugees, left their familiar homeland looking for a better future for themselves. It’s a side of Bruce’s story that isn’t always emphasized. I hope by the end of the film, audiences have learned something new. Not just about Bruce Lee but also how America has treated the ‘other’ in the past.”
Lee’s life turns out to be a particularly apt tale for our present moment, where COVID-19 fears bred anti-Asian sentiment and thousands continue to take to the streets in support of black Americans. The actor rose to prominence in the United States during the 1960s civil rights era, and Be Water again and again shows him as a man of his time pushing for equality across many aspects of his life. As a martial arts trainer, Lee didn’t discriminate students by race at a time when many others would only provide lessons to people like them (individuals as famous as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trained with Lee, and the basketball star and activist later agreed to be in one of Lee’s films, Game of Death). When Lee continued to meet resistance in Hollywood due to fears about making an Asian American a leading man, he simply created his own opportunities, pivoting to writing and production after moving to Hong Kong. As a man who called that country home for many years, he’d write anti-colonial messages and images into his films. And as an actor, he wouldn’t settle for roles that resorted to stereotypes and also refused to use them for the villains he created (it’s why Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon isn’t downright cartoonish). It reminded me a bit of folks like Louis Armstrong or Dave Brubeck, artistic legends who decades later may only be known for select works but quietly pushed for social justice at the prime of their powers.
“He once told me, ‘I can educate people faster with one film than I ever could by writing a book or by opening 100 karate schools in America,'” as one Be Water interviewee puts it.
Lee’s physical gifts remain obvious whenever Be Water showcases training footage or shares clips from a classic film sequence. “He made fighting on-screen dialogue—there was subtext,” one interviewee says. One former girlfriend calls him a “kinetic genius,” and that ability evidently translated to dance halls. But everyone already knows that; Lee’s films have become iconic over the years primarily because of how gripping the actor is during any on-camera action (which, by the way, he’d often choreograph—Lee worked as a stunt coordinator early on in Hollywood when he couldn’t get roles). If you want to watch the “stick to sports” version of a Lee profile, his fight sequences are all over YouTube and his movies are on various streaming services (HBO Max newly has Enter the Dragon; Fist of Fury is on Amazon Prime). Instead, Be Water shows a fuller picture of the action star, which will likely endear him to an entirely new generation more familiar with the Asian action stars Lee blazed a trail for. It certainly made me eager to rewatch a few films I haven’t seen since I was a kid, now armed with whole new perspective on the hero.
“Right now, in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, the fear of an uncertain future and the need to blame the ‘other’ has sparked anti-Asian racism and harassment throughout the world. And as a victim of some of this anti-Asian racism, I know the importance of sharing positive images and stories of Asian Americans like Bruce’s to a broad audience,” Nguyen concludes in his director’s letter. “As Bruce once said, ‘Under the sky, under the heavens there is but one family.’ Asian Americans are Americans too and it’s unfortunate that we have to remind people of this. Bruce really was about building bridges—bridges between cultures and bridges between people, no matter what you looked like or where you came from. Let’s always remember that.”
ESPN’s Be Water airs Sunday, June 7, at 9p ET. Look for it in the ESPN+ / WatchESPN app soon after.
Listing image by Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN