Nolte: Quentin Tarantino Accused of Racism over ‘Once Upon a Time’ Bruce Lee Spoof

Brad Pitt and Mike Moh in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019) Titles: Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood People: Brad Pitt, Mike Moh Photo by ANDREW COOPER
ANDREW COOPER/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino is under attack as a racist for spoofing Bruce Lee in his latest film, the box office smash, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Lee, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1973 at age 32 just as the superstardom he worked so hard to achieve was just over the horizon with Enter the Dragon, is portrayed in Tarantino’s film as a vain braggart.

Here’s what happens in the movie…

****SOME SPOILERS****

In a flashback scene, aging stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is on the set of the Green Hornet, the television show where Lee, in real life, co-starred as Kato for its single season run in 1966.

On the set, Lee (Mike Moh) holds court, bragging to crewmen, extras, and anyone who’s interested, about how great he is, how he would beat then-heavyweight champ Cassius Clay in a fight. Lee is further disrespecting the champ by referring to him by his “slave name.” Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964.

“I’d make him a cripple,” Lee brags.

Booth snorts at this and says Lee would end up “a stain on the seat of Cassius Clay’s trunks.”

Lee takes offense and the two men decide to see who’s the toughest with a two-out-of-three match where you win a point for putting the other guy on the ground.

Although the fight is interrupted before a winner is declared, after quickly dropping Booth, Lee is humiliated when Booth throws him into a car.

In a much more sympathetic scene, Lee is later seen training Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) for her role in Dean Martin’s cheesy James Bond spoof The Wrecking Crew, which also happened in real life.

The scene between Booth and Lee is not gratuitous. The fact that Booth is a match for Lee is Tarantino’s way of establishing this character as physically competent, and who better to use than The Mighty Bruce Lee?

****END SPOILERS****

Here are the allegations…

Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, who was four when her father died and who oversees his legacy, told TheWrap:

I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie. I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen… and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion.

I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.

He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air and not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.

It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.

Here, he’s the one with all the puffery and he’s the one challenging Brad Pitt. Which is not how he was.

What I’m interested in is raising the consciousness of who Bruce Lee was as a human being and how he lived his life. All of that was flushed down the toilet in this portrayal, and made my father into this arrogant punching bag.

Variety spoke to Dan Inosanto, Lee’s now 83-year-old protégé, and although Inosanto did not bring up race, the far-left publication still frames the whole piece around the idea of racism (mild spoilers): “…where Lee is shown bragging about his fighting prowess, only to be bested by ageing white stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).”

Inosanto has not yet seen the film but says that from his memories of Lee on a working set, he never saw the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised actor being braggadocious or engaging in scraps for the sake of showing off. He did, however, push back on portraying Asians practicing martial arts in a stereotypical way, what Inosanto calls the “chop-chop Hollywood stuff.”

“He was never, in my opinion, cocky. Maybe he was cocky in as far as martial arts because he was very sure of himself. He was worlds ahead of everyone else. But on a set, he’s not gonna show off,” recalls Inosanto, adding that it’s highly dubious that a stuntman could have gotten the best of the “Enter the Dragon” star.

So what’s the truth?

Was Bruce Lee a modest, button-downed role model of humility?

No.

Anyone who has seen Lee in interviews knows he frequently had an arrogant air about him, and rightly so… He was very, very good at what he did. Muhammad Ali, although he came off as more playful as Lee, also had this air about him. Many of The Greats do, especially in sports.

But Bruce Lee could also be a very sweet and generous man:

Tarantino’s critics are probably correct that Lee would never start a fight but does anyone doubt Lee challenged people in the same way his character challenged Cliff Booth — I mean to a fair contest to see who’s best? And if you listen to the commentary on the Enter the Dragon DVD (the first release back on the 90s), there is a story about Lee knocking a stuntman on his ass who doubted Lee could live up to his billing. If the story is true, the shot made it into the final cut of the movie.

So there is a lot in Lee’s past for Tarantino to mine, which makes it awfully noxious to claim the director is somehow motivated by race to create a supremacist fantasy where a white guy ties with the Asian legend in a two-out-of-three match.

Tarantino has, to date, written and directed nine films, and three of them (Jackie Brown, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight) star black actors. And Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 not only dress the protagonist (Uma Thurman) in Bruce Lee’s classic yellow jumpsuit from Game of Death and pay homage to the mask Lee wore as Kato in the Green Hornet, the entire movie reveres and pays tribute to Asian culture and casts a whole host of Asian superstars.

For what it’s worth, you are not going to meet a bigger Bruce Lee fan than myself. I’m 53-years-old and still have his poster hanging in my house. But what makes Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee so amusing is that — sorry to say this — it’s based in part on the truth. Sorry again, but it just is. Sure, like all satire, the truth is exaggerated, but that Lee had, at times, a chin-out arrogance about himself is obvious to anyone who has taken any interest in him. But like Ali and Joe Namath, what makes that arrogance part of his legendary cool is that he could back it up — and then some.

Tarantino in no way uses Lee’s Asian heritage to denigrate the man, which is the only way one could make a case for racism.

I’m not here to scold Lee’s daughter for defending her father’s image. But at the same time, the allegations of racism are grossly unfair — they don’t hold up to the facts; and who wants to live in a society where “approved” people are inoculated from satire?

Is that where we’re headed — into a country where we have first and second class citizens, a new form of segregation where some people can be satirized and others are sacred cows; where if you poke fun at or criticize the sacred cows you will be smeared as a witch racist?

Sadly, yes. 

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.

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