REVIEW: BE WATER underscores the cultural impact behind the rising star of Bruce Lee in the 60s and 70s through today


Director Bao Nguyen’s 30 FOR 30 documentary on Bruce Lee traces the rise of Bruce Lee’s popularity through hard work in the ’60s and ’70s as juxtaposed through the tremendous social changes of the era and how that affected him.

Without a doubt, Bruce Lee is the most famous martial artist that ever lived in terms of enduring popularity and the impact of the legacy of his films over succeeding generations. From Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to modern fighting games to the popularity of UFC and MMA, the line of succession all comes from Bruce Lee and his many gifts. Director Bao Nguyen’s documentary BE WATER examines Lee as a person with first-hand accounts from those who knew him best. From his daughter Shannon and his wife Linda to his former students and peers, such as basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his brother Robert Lee, their voices are intermixed with film footage and home movies to give us a bigger picture of Lee, who tragically died at the age of 32 in 1973 months before the release of the film that made him an international icon, Enter The Dragon.

Nguyen’s documentary traces Lee’s life as a young man in Seattle, making his own way teaching kung fu classes while attending university trying to make it as his own man without his father’s financial help. We see Lee’s struggles with systemic racism in the Hollywood machine, as even though Batman producer William Dozier sees the value in Lee and casts him in his ABC show The Green Hornet, his paycheck is that of a glorified extra. It isn’t until Lee goes to Hong Kong after having his dreams of TV stardom crushed after being passed over for the lead in the show that would become Kung Fu, that Lee embraces Chinese cinema. Here, in his early films The Big Boss and Fists of Fury, Lee taps into a growing sense of Chinese identity and their need for a cinematic hero that leads to opportunities for Lee to make the film that made him a legend, 1973’s Enter The Dragon, a co-production between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers. Even here, Lee had to fight to make his voice and personality heard as American actor John Saxon was cast as a co-lead to hedge WB’s bets on Lee as a solo lead.

The real value in BE WATER is in seeing Lee as a young man develop his philosophies and work ethic and hear the impact that the changing 1960s had on Lee, who soaked in the opportunities and spirit in the era in his work and being, befriending black people and whites alike and seeing them for their character and being open to change. Much as Lee’s style in Jeet Kune Do was to be like water and take what works and use it, Lee’s character was open and not rigid and that’s helped make him a timeless icon. Lee was a human who struggled and failed, but his story is a timely one, and BE WATER captures the zeitgeist of now in showing the forces that shaped Lee then and how he is still relevant today.