Abdul-Jabbar’s comments following statements from Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and his daughter Shannon Lee, who have lashed out about the actor’s portrayal in the flick. Cadwell found the depiction to be “just awful,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
Abdul-Jabbar said he was a student at UCLA when he met Lee, who trained him in martial arts. He credits this training with his “being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries.”
He considers Lee his “friend and teacher,” and says Tarantino’s depiction of Lee shows “a lapse of cultural awareness.”
“That’s why filmmakers have a responsibility when playing with people’s perceptions of admired historic people to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character,” he wrote. “Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.”
He goes on to say:
Bruce Lee was my friend and teacher. That doesn’t give him a free pass for how he’s portrayed in movies. But it does give me some insight into the man.
During our years of friendship, he spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV. The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants. Bruce was dedicated to changing the dismissive image of Asians through his acting, writing and promotion of Jeet Kune Do, his interpretation of martial arts.
That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.
I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. He always politely declined and moved on. First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option. He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways.
You can read Abdul-Jabbar’s full op-ed here. This story appears in the Aug. 21 issue of THR.
Meanwhile, during a press conference in Russia for the film, Tarantino defended his take on Lee.
The acclaimed director said Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy,” and noted that he didn’t make up the things he wrote in the script.
“I heard him say things like that — to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read…. She absolutely said it,” he said.
As far as the onset brawl between Lee and Booth (Brad Pitt) in the movie that’s at the center of the scrutiny, Tarantino added, “Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could.”
Continuing, “If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up.”