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Be Water

How Bruce Lee combined martial arts with the blaxploitation genre

Kung fu’s urban black audience was acknowledged by the casting of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Lee’s ‘Game of Death’

To be water, in the way that Bruce Lee is, means to be able to integrate seemingly disparate elements and to move constantly toward both collective justice and self-actualization.

As Bao Nguyen’s new documentary on Lee’s legacy, Be Water, which premieres Sunday on ESPN, shows, Lee had to negotiate opposite tendencies all his life.

Lee returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco in 1969, where he proceeded to make The Big Boss (1971), Return of the Dragon (1972) and Fist of Fury (1972). The Hong Kong films allowed him to work from a position of legibility, of not having to compromise or mute himself for an American audience like he had to do in The Green Hornet in 1966. In Fist of Fury, set in the international settlement zone of British- and American-occupied Shanghai of the 1910s, Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, fought with colonial police after being prevented from entering a public park with the sign “No dogs and Chinese allowed,” a sign he shattered with a single kick.

“There’s no doubt that Bruce’s cinematic response to such a blatantly segregationist message … would resonate powerfully with an African American audience just a little over 10 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Amy Abugo Ongiri wrote in an article published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002.

In these films, Lee frequently problematized the criminalization of the conquered and the colonized. Their massive popularity gave Lee leverage for his first big box-office collaboration with Hollywood, Enter the Dragon, which was released in 1973. Considered one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, it grossed more than $20 million in the United States, and was selected for preservation in 2004 by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Actor Jim Kelly on set for the Warner Bros. movie Enter the Dragon in 1973.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Enter the Dragon marks a departure for Lee from the role of working-class, anti-colonial protagonist he had established for himself in earlier films. His character, also named Lee, works for an arm of the U.S. government to defeat another enemy: international organized crime. The film includes a scene in which Williams, a black character with an Afro played by Jim Kelly, is accosted by white policemen while he is walking at night. Williams, a karate expert, readily beats up the police officers and leaves the scene without a scratch. The scene appears to be a nod to the blaxploitation films made in the early 1970s that featured black actors to appeal to a black urban audience, where black protagonists responded to white characters’ abuse or aggression with defensive force.

“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously,” Lee’s character said in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon. This is an insight that must have come through years of deep wrestling with these seemingly opposing tendencies. Ultimately, he refused a hierarchy between artifice and intention, insisting instead on the process of aligning performance and feeling. For instance, anytime Lee portrayed a member of a kung fu school, he always wore a distinct uniform that set him apart from the other members.

‘Be Water’ exclusive look: Inside Lee’s fight scene vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The double meaning of the word “play” here is also critical, because it emphasizes impermanence and invokes the possibility of pleasure during a period of political upheaval, where struggles against American racism, militarism and imperialism were necessarily articulated through racial politics, led by black freedom fighters. The oppressed can fight for what is right in a way that does not erase our individuality. We can experiment, we can evolve, we can do difficult things in a way that fulfills us as human beings.

Lee was in the middle of filming Game of Death, co-starring basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he died unexpectedly of cerebral edema in 1973. The project bridged not only the cultures of postcolonial Asia and mainstream America, but combined martial arts with the blaxploitation genre. Ongiri notes kung fu’s urban black audience was acknowledged by the casting of Abdul-Jabbar, who had been a student of Lee’s, in Game of Death.

The bridge created by Lee’s martial arts practice between Asian and black Americans — during the height of the Vietnam War — was subversive to the strategy of racial division, which serves only to maintain white privilege as the norm in America. He also paved the way for other Chinese martial artists to bridge the Pacific divide, specifically through black-Asian collaborations, such as Rush Hour movies, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (1998, 2001, 2007), and Romeo Must Die (2000), starring Jet Li and Aaliyah. Although these films were released long after the era of blaxploitation, they draw on the tradition of black and Asian connection forged by martial arts. Chan was a stuntman in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon, and shared in an interview that he was impressed by how kind Lee was to the crew. Chan even pretended he was more seriously injured during a scene to get Lee’s attention, which led him to working better-paying shifts. Li, on the other hand, has emphasized Lee’s ability to show “his individual personality inside all his action movies.” Li said: “This is my attempt to keep at it like Bruce.”

Bruce Lee paved the way for other Chinese martial artists to bridge the pacific divide, specifically through black-Asian collaborations, such as Rush Hour movies, starring Jackie Chan (left) and Chris Tucker (right).

Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Before being “discovered” by Hollywood, Lee had planned to establish martial arts schools all over the country that would be open to everyone. For Lee, the ability to adapt to one’s opponent was the highest technique one could achieve as a martial artist, that is, the ability to keep moving toward one’s purpose regardless of what form the obstacle takes.

Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee returned as an infant with his family to Hong Kong just before the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1941. His family had roots in the cultural industry, so he grew up acting in films as a child, even before he began training as a martial artist under Yip Man’s tutelage, who was one of the most respected martial arts masters of his time.

To be water is to be necessarily impure. Water touches multiple lands, and carries away bits and pieces of everything, everywhere. Lee did this as an Asian American straddling two hemispheres, and within each of them, communities that have been both thrown together and divided by history. As a martial artist, he took bits and pieces from various martial arts traditions, weaving them together into his own unique practice, and encouraged others to do the same. In this orientation, I see a parallel to the way black artists — forcibly displaced and separated from their cultural roots — have created their own original forms of art and music, blending multiple influences, repurposing difficult, and often painful, inheritances to create the most vibrant cultural innovations (interventions) we have today. From the blues to jazz to hip-hop to the Black Arts movement to visual poetry. Recently, Erykah Badu hosted a battle with Jill Scott on Instagram Live, with Lee’s fighting scenes projected on the background in black and white. To be water is to carry the memories — written and unwritten, spoken or silenced — of multitudes as we move, to hold all of our complicated entanglements with each other across made-up borders and categories, to shape and remake the hard places in our lives, inevitably, together. It is to be not alone, but complicit in each other’s survival.

“Be formless, shapeless, like water,” Lee said. And to me, in this moment of history, that means be open, be fearless in the face of change.

Cynthia Dewi Oka is author of SALVAGE and NOMAD OF SALT AND HARD WATER