The documentary, set to debut Sunday night as part of the network’s “30 for 30” series, devotes almost two-thirds of its running time to Lee’s experiences as a young man in 1960s America. Of course, he never got to be an old man; he died in 1973 at 32, just as he had become an international sensation.
As with those of James Dean and a number of rock-and-roll icons, Lee’s early death deprived the world of seeing more of his brilliance, but it also solidified his mythical status, particularly as the decades went by.
What “Be Water” director Bao Nguyen set out to do with Lee’s story, he told The Washington Post in a recent interview, was “unpack that mythology and find out who he was as a person.”
To that end, we see Lee struggle to assimilate and succeed in a country where he was “looked at as ‘the other,’ ” as Nguyen put it. At the same time, that wasn’t a wholly unfamiliar issue for Lee, whose mother was of mixed Asian and European heritage.
Adding to his sense of rootlessness was the fact that he was born in San Francisco, then raised in Hong Kong, where he attained some success as a child actor. He repeated that cycle, in some ways, later in life, when he realized an Asian American could barely land a role in Hollywood that wasn’t insultingly stereotypical — let alone have a realistic shot at being a leading man.
“He was trying to find a place to belong,” Nguyen said.
The effect on Lee’s psychology, though, may have left him open to new ideas that helped shape his philosophy about martial arts, if not life itself. He decided that any one combat style was too limiting and created his own that emphasized dynamism and freed practitioners from adhering to rigid sequences of movement.
The conceptual underpinning to that philosophy, as famously summed up by Lee, gave the “30 for 30” documentary its title.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless — like water,” he said in a 1971 interview with TV host Pierre Berton that is excerpted several times in the film.
“You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot; it becomes the teapot,” he continued. “Now, water can flow, or it can crash.
“Be water, my friend.”
Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, says in the documentary that his philosophy was “one of self-actualization.”
“Don’t accept that you are this stereotyped image that is cast upon you by others,” she says. “Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it.”
Married to Lee in 1964 after they were students together at the University of Washington — she also was a student of his in martial arts — Lee Cadwell had a front-row seat as her husband attempted to find himself amid a climate in the United States that was at best patronizingly dismissive to people of Asian heritage.
As Nguyen noted, America had grown used to seeing Asians as the enemy following conflicts with Japan and in Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Chinese people had to cope with some of the most long-standing stereotypes after arriving on the West Coast in great numbers during the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush and railroad expansion.
In providing context for Lee’s new environment after he returned to the United States as an 18-year-old, “Be Water” spends some time on the “model minority” myth, wherein Asian Americans were viewed by whites as docile and eager to follow rules.
That was in contrast to how African Americans became viewed by many whites, particularly as the civil rights movement progressed. As shown in the documentary, one of Lee’s first martial arts students and close friends was a black man, Jesse Glover, who helped teach the recent arrival what was and was not “cool” and that Asians were hardly the only minority in America facing significant obstacles.
Noting that Glover wanted to learn martial arts for self-defense after being subjected to police brutality, Nguyen said, “That really informed Bruce’s idea of America and just his open-mindedness about different races, different cultures, different individuals.”
When Lee began teaching martial arts to Steve McQueen and James Coburn as a way to help make ends meet during lean times in Hollywood, another student of his was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would later take on Lee in a memorable fight scene in “Game of Death.” In turn, the NBA legend “taught him about the civil rights movement and black liberation,” Nguyen said.
Lee also had a foot in the white world of America after marrying and having children with Lee Cadwell, who said her mother was initially skeptical of the relationship but “thought he was great” once she knew him better.
The “Enter the Dragon” star had a major impact on Nguyen, said the 36-year-old director, a child of Vietnamese immigrants who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., before attending New York University and New York’s School of Visual Arts.
Of seeing that film as a young, Asian American boy, Nguyen said, “It was something kind of life-changing because I finally saw myself on-screen playing a hero.”
The director found Lee’s journey by boat from Hong Kong to the United States to be particularly resonant; Nguyen’s parents spent two weeks at sea after fleeing Vietnam before reaching a Hong Kong refugee camp and, eventually, making their way to America.
While the prevailing narrative about Lee positions him as “this martial arts god, in many ways, and a film icon,” Nguyen said he “really wanted to see him through the lens of an immigrant American who had to face a lot of challenges and deal with discrimination and racism that was rampant in the 1960s.”
“When we think about immigrant Americans and when we think about Americans in general,” he added, “Bruce Lee is not seemingly the prototypical American. But when you dive deeper into his story, it’s very much the epitome of an American story.”