“From my point of view, the 20th century gave us just two icons who rose above time, space and race: There was Muhammad Ali, and there was Bruce Lee,” says documentary filmmaker Pete McCormack, explaining the rationale behind his two most recent projects, the feature documentary “Facing Ali,” shortlisted for the Academy Award in 2010, and its new followup “I Am Bruce Lee,” which hits 160 theaters across the country for special screenings on February 9 and 11.
It’s an assertion that instantly prompts thoughts of obvious alternatives (was that a muffled cough from Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?) — but the truth is, it can’t be dismissed as hyperbole either.
Ali and Lee were rare and similar figures: Exceptionally charismatic individuals who thrived in the spotlight, and who earned their permanent place in history by both embodying and overcoming the contradictions of their era. They were unifiers and provocateurs, paramount warriors who preached peace, racial role models whose impact reached far beyond their own communities.
Both were named to Time magazine’s 1999 list of the 100 most important individuals of the past hundred years. And yet, when the list was unveiled, there were those who groused about Lee’s inclusion. A martial arts movie star? Alongside the likes of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and, uh, Gandhi and King?
Well…yes. “I Am Bruce Lee” is essentially a 94-minute-long argument that Lee was more than worthy of recognition among the century’s greats, and frankly, it’s a convincing one. The documentary is a cascading chain of reminiscences from friends and family (including wife Linda Lee Cadwell and daughter Shannon, inner-circle member Dan Inosanto and goddaughter Diana Lee Inosanto), tributes from students and fellow fighters of many styles and generations, and vivid celebrations of his legacy from an eclectic mix of celebrities who claim him as a personal inspiration: NBA superstar Kobe Bryant; filmmaker and former BET chief Reginald Hudlin; actors Ed O’Neill (“Modern Family”) and Mickey Rourke (“Iron Man 2″); skateboarder Paul Rodriguez, B-boy Jose Ruiz, and Black Eyed Peas member Taboo.
Interspersed with the talking heads and moving bodies — the interviewees prove that it’s impossible to expound on Bruce Lee while standing still — are samples of his life and work, including personal clips and images that have never before been seen on screen.
Together, all of it makes the case that the biggest source of Lee’s impact wasn’t his onscreen performances, but the unique philosophy he formulated and preached, and that has made converts of individuals from an amazing range of backgrounds — what you might call a way of thinking that leads to a way of moving that leads to a way of life.
The belief system behind Lee’s art, Jeet Kune Do, was rooted in resourcefulness: “Use what works, and take it from any place you can find it”; in flexibility: “Don’t get set into one form, adapt, be like water”; in simplicity: “Express the utmost with the minimum”; in action: “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
But most of all, it’s one that was steeped in a defiant antiestablishmentarianism, a rebellion against the status quo that walks in startling lockstep with the sensibilities of today’s cultural and political moment.
Some of what he said sounds like it might appeal to the Tea Party right: “Not a daily increase, but a daily decrease: Hack away at the inessentials”; “To hell with circumstances — I create opportunities”; “A big organization is not necessary….all members will be conditioned according to the prescribed system; many will end up as a prisoner of a systematized drill.”
But though Lee was a firm believer in the power of the individual, he was if anything the inverse of the Ayn Randian self-interested superman, contemptuous of the lesser beings around him. He told his disciples that “the successful warrior is just an average man with laser-like focus”; he stressed to them that he wasn’t their master, but a “student-master,” still constantly learning from them and from the world — “you can consider someone a master when you’re closing their casket”; he reminded them that “real living is living for others.”
Lee abhorred the elitism of the martial arts world, refusing to issue belts or to imbue his lessons with quasi-mystical ritual. He was relentlessly egalitarian, teaching anyone and everyone who wanted to learn and was willing to work, regardless of size, shape, background — or race: Early in his career in the U.S., he came into violent conflict with the incensed heads of other Chinese martial arts schools, who demanded he stop initiating non-Asians into their secrets. Lee thrashed the representative they sent to challenge him, and continued instructing whomever he wanted.
To Lee, boundaries and divisions, whether between styles or between peoples, were nothing more than a tool of oppression — and as Lee’s wife Linda says, “Bruce hated the oppression of the little people, which he saw everywhere: The Japanese occupation, the Boxer Rebellion, the foreign powers going into China. He just thought all of that was wrong.”
In the film, an animated Reggie Hudlin adds that Lee emerged at a time when the angry underclass was seeking out leaders and symbols, “counterculture figures to fight the establishment” — figures like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Muhammad Ali — and Bruce Lee: “When he fought Chuck Norris [in “Way of the Dragon”], Bruce Lee represented the entire Third World, all people of color, fighting the Western oppressor.”
In short, it’s fair to say that Lee was a badass of the 99 Percent.
Today, Norris has become a kind of conservative kingmaker, anointing right wing candidates he decides are worthy of his badge of toughness (he’s the one who famously called Arizona Governor Jan Brewer a woman who eats “scorpions for breakfast,” which she promptly used as the title of her now-famous memoir). If Lee had lived to today, might he be replaying their famous battle at the Coliseum in the political arena — giving progressive politicians the benefit of his personal magic to counter Norris’s fists of approval? Or would he, as Kobe Bryant jokes in the doc, be competing on “Dancing With the Stars” — and winning?
“My dad didn’t see limitations, in himself or in other people,” says Shannon Lee, who served as the film’s executive producer. “He did what he did his way, and left behind an extremely unique footprint.”
Unique enough to last 40 years without fading, as trainer and expert Jeet Kune Do practitioner Teri Tom says in the film: “You’d think people would have forgotten him by now, but no — I think a lot of cultures have actually picked him up as their hero.”
In 2005, a grassroots youth organization in Mostar in Bosnia spearheaded a successful drive to commission and erect a statue of Lee in one of the city’s main squares, calling him a symbol of “the fight against divisions, and the struggle to bridge cultures — one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee.” (There’s also a street named after Lee in the city of Drvengrad in Bosnia’s bitter rival Serbia, suggesting a broad-based Balkan fascination with Lee.) That same year, Lee fans raised over $100,000 to get Hong Kong, the city of Lee’s childhood, to erect a statue of him in a choice location by the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront on the Hong Kong Walk of Stars. A thriving theme park dedicated to Lee, “Bruce Lee Paradise,” opened in his ancestral town of Shunde on the China mainland in 2006.
But this year could see the way open for the biggest Bruce Lee memorial yet — a $50 million Bruce Lee Action Museum targeted for Seattle, Washington’s International District, which is currently under review by the city’s council. According to Shannon Lee, the museum would have a permanent exhibit of Lee’s life and memorabilia, galleries for visiting shows on themes related to his ideas, a store, theater, meditation space, outdoor training area, research library and café.
And what better year to announce the museum than this one? Lee’s family and fans await the council’s announcement with bated breath. In the meantime, there’s “I Am Bruce Lee,” which is as good a reason to Occupy movie theaters on February 9 and 11 as any. Happy Year of the Dragon.
The truly amazing thing about Bruce is how much he accomplished in such a short span of time. He died in 1973 at the age of 32, with just five feature films to his name — one of which, “Game of Death,” was assembled posthumously around 11 minutes of footage shot before his demise. Despite this fact, Lee may be the only Asian American with household name status nearly everywhere in the world — he’s certainly the only Asian American on the Time 100 list of the century’s most influential individuals.
It really does make you wonder what he’d have become if he hadn’t died. Given his amazing drive, ambition and intellect, it’s hard not to imagine that his career wouldn’t have continued on its upward trajectory, to paraphrase one of Lee’s most famous lines, like a finger pointing at the moon in all its heavenly glory.
Lee’s legacy is something that’s already tough to live up to: “I’ve studied martial arts, but of course I’m not anywhere near the level of my father,” laughs Shannon Lee. “Still, people assume I’m a lethal weapon anyway! Sometimes people come up to me and I have to correct the impression — look, I’m a mom and a businessperson, and no, I can’t kill you with two fingers and an evil look.”
I get that all the time myself, Shannon. Maybe it doesn’t help that I’ve written a book called “I Am Jackie Chan.”