Final Project- I Am Bruce Lee: Fighting Stereotypes or Fighting Tradition?

Posted on December 20, 2013 by


As a Chinese-American, Bruce Lee fought his entire career against social and cultural stereotypes. While these stereotypes were not explicitly religious, they may derive somewhat from traditional Eastern religious cliches. The trope of the calm, meditating Asian man is still very common today, and that is simply not who Bruce Lee wanted to be. In his own words, Lee’s life was an attempt to express himself freely, and to do that, he had to fight against who the world wanted him to be.

This is the message the movie I Am Bruce Lee intends to portray. It is essentially a celebration of Lee’s short life and everything he stood for, and one of the major themes shown was his ideas of freedom of expression. He started out with the Cantonese martial art style of Wing Chun, but soon found it alone was not good enough for him. Once in the United States, he learned other martial arts and began to combine them in order to maximize his skill. He took eastern martial arts along with western fighting styles. He would spend hours studying film of the American boxers, like Muhammad Ali. In this way, his fighting style became like his nationality: a unique mixture of east and west.

While trying to make it into Hollywood, he found it difficult when he was cast as an Asian-American and all the stereotypes that go with it. His first major American role was in the television series The Green Hornet, in which he played Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick. After the show’s run, Lee said he was frustrated with the role as he was not able to be himself. This was one of his greatest struggles. Hollywood saw him as a Chinese man, which they believed would not resonate with their audiences. Asian men are allowed to play Asian men’s roles, which are usually the gentle, mystical and spiritual types. The meditating Buddhist monk is the image we all have here. But that was not at all who Lee was. He wanted to be the lead man, a star, and to get there he had to fight for it.

It is interesting how all the people who were interviewed come from completely different backgrounds, racial and otherwise. There was Kobe Bryant, an African-American basketball player who grew up in Italy. There were skateboarders, boxers, dancers, actors and singers; all of different races and ethnicities. They all came together to praise Lee for different reasons. They all had something to admire about him. But let’s be clear on this: everyone loves Bruce Lee because he could fight. Fighting seems to be a universal language. That was how he broke through to stardom. He could not overcome the stereotypes of the Asian-American male with protests, rallies, or even his unique charisma. He did it with incredibly quick hands and an astonishingly high leg kick.

As the documentary so eloquently put, Lee was the first to give Asian-American men “balls”. But these stereotypes have not gone away since his death. As was noted, there are the same number of male Asian-American movie stars today as there were back then: zero. The only actor of any note is Ken Jeong of the Hangover trilogy. While he is somewhat recognizable from movies and recent television commercials, he has hardly been the macho type that Lee was. That is the kind of character that is needed to most directly combat these stereotypes.

The movie tends to stay away from religion for the most part, as I’m sure fighting is more marketable. Lee’s philosophy was discussed somewhat, however, and philosophy and religion can be difficult to separate. He studied philosophy at the University of Washington and was heavily influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. When asked if he believed in God, he said no, that he was an atheist. This may surprise some people, as many would like to cast Lee as the eastern meditating monk cliche we all know so well. Today, that trope is more pervasive than ever. Recent movies such as Kung Fu Panda, kids television shows such as Xiaolin Showdown, or even the classic Karate Kid movies. It seems that Lee was as much if not more American than he was Chinese, and the movie does a good job of showing that.

Lee grew up studying Wing Chun. In 1964, in Oakland, California, he had a private match with Wong Jock Man for the right to teach martial arts in that neighborhood. Lee defeated him, but according to his own standards he did not defeat him quickly enough. The documentary shows this as a turning point in his martial arts career and personal philosophy. He then decided the Wing Chun alone was not good enough for him, and he began to learn other martial arts to improve his skill. He disregarded any traditions that could keep him from maximizing his potential as a fighter. He saw martial arts competitions with judges as pointless because they were not real fighting. The movie showed him going through books of all different martial arts philosophies searching for moves to see what was good and what was not. He came to the conclusion that staying with one style became too rigid and unrealistic for real fighting. He later developed his own martial art called Jeet Kune Do which he called “the style of no style.” He came to the conclusion that staying with one style became too rigid and unrealistic for real fighting.


The Jeet Kune Do emblem, with a modified Yin Yang symbol. The Chinese Characters say, “Using no way as way” and “Having no limitation as limitation”.

The documentary praises him throughout for breaking all rules and traditions in order to be himself. Some of the interviewees affectionately call him the Father of Mixed Martial Arts. But how much of that tradition did he sacrifice just for fighting? Wong Jock Man was sent to fight Lee after the Chinese in California gave him an ultimatum to stop teaching the non-Chinese. They obviously were not pleased with Lee, as he was breaking customs. Their side is not at all discussed in the documentary. But he won the fight and earned the right to do whatever he pleased. According to the documentary, winning fights is all that matters.

-Jonathan Burow

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