REVIEW: ESPN 30 for 30 – ‘Be Water’ is a Bruce Lee Documentary About America

For many Asian-Americans who grew up in the United States in the 80s and 90s, the definitive Bruce Lee documentary is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story starring Jason Scott Lee. No Dragon isn’t a documentary. Yes it’s full of factual inaccuracies. No we don’t didn’t care. For me and many of my friends, Dragon was the first modern Bruce Lee story that we ever saw, and the fact that it was a major motion picture made us love it even more.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story premiered in 1993. Since then there have been a handful of Bruce Lee documentaries and a couple of biographies. Personally, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, directed by John Little is my favorite Bruce documentary for the most definitive cut of Bruce’s last film, Game of Death, that went unfinished. In terms of biographies, Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life is probably the most complete written biography to date.

That brings us to ESPN 30 for 30: Be Water directed by Bao Nguyen. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is possibly the most high profile Bruce Lee documentary ever and certainly the biggest one made by an Asian-American filmmaker. It also just happens to have been released during one of the largest outcries against racial injustice, particularly against the Black community, in recent history.

It’s fitting then that Be Water is as much an American story as it is a Bruce Lee story. In doing the media rounds to promote his film, Nguyen talked about how his goal was to tell the real life story about Bruce Lee that was detached from the legend and the myth of the man. In doing so, Nguyen tells a story that is a cultural narrative about the United States from the Asian-American perspective. Nguyen’s Bruce Lee story isn’t about martial arts training, incredible feats of physical excellence or Lee’s real life fights with various rivals. In fact, Nguyen seems to make it a point to speed past many of those moments in Bruce’s life, almost as if he doesn’t want the audience to get distracted from the story he’s telling. Instead, we get a well crafted story about an American icon who struggled as a young Asian teen in the United States, fought to integrate himself into western culture and eventually had to leave the country to find the acceptance that he had long desired, only to tragically die before his triumphant return.

Before I get into my thoughts on Be Water, I want to highlight some supporting pieces that ESPN released in promoting the film, which are well worth checking out:

First, Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee, who runs the Bruce Lee family of companies and is the guardian of Bruce’s legacy, wrote a great piece for ESPN on her thoughts about Be Water. The first thing I do whenever I hear about a new Bruce Lee related project is check to see if Shannon is involved or at least supportive. She served as an Executive Producer on Cinemax’s Warrior, which is an incredible show. In contrast, she had absolutely no involvement with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was widely derided for its depiction of Bruce. She was also not involved with the recent Bruce Lee related film Birth of the Dragon, which was packaged as a Bruce Lee story but bizarrely centered a fictional white character as its protagonist. You see the trend here. In any case, although Shannon wasn’t involved with the development of Be Water, she did participate in it and actively helped promote it.

By Anita Yan Wong

Second, ESPN’s pop culture spin off site The Undefeated, put out two great pieces connected to this film. One is a piece by Asian-American journalist Cary Chow, who discusses his personal conflict with the legacy of Bruce Lee and spoke with a variety of high profile pop culture figures on the topic. The other is a letter to Bruce written by actor and martial artist Daniel Wu, who recently starred in his own martial arts epic series Into the Badlands. 

Third, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan dropped this new single and video, Be Like Water, inspired by the documentary. When you’ve got the Wu-Tang stamp of approval, that’s pretty impressive.

Fourth, ESPN reached out to eight Asian artists to create original pieces inspired by Bruce Lee, and it’s exciting to see their fantastic and unique work, along with interviews of each of the artists. Yet another positive result of a Bruce Lee project is that Asian-American creatives get opportunities that they might not otherwise get.

Finally, prior to the premiere of Be Water, director Bao Nguyen joined noted Bruce Lee enthusiasts Steve Aoki and W. Kamau Bell, for a great discussion on the film, Bruce’s legacy, and his impact on each of them personally. If you missed it, you can still watch it here:

All that content alone makes the very existence of Be Water a huge win for Bruce Lee fans and the Asian-American community. The idea that in 2020, nearly 30 years after Bruce’s death, we would be celebrating his memory and impact on the world in this way is truly a testament to his unique greatness. Now onto the documentary itself:

The Good
Bruce Lee the Human – Almost everyone knows Bruce was a badass. We’ve all seen him do push-ups with his fingers on one-hand, send people flying with his one-inch punch, and demonstrate blinding speed with his punches and kicks. But did you know Bruce was a successful child actor in Hong Kong? Or that he was sent back to America as a teen with only $100 in his pocket because he got into too many fights? Did you know his first student in the U.S. was a Black man named Jesse Glover? Or that his first love was a Japanese-American woman named Amy Sanbo, who opened his eyes to the discrimination that they faced during the internment camps of World War II? These stories are what Be Water is about. We’re not regaled with tall tales of Bruce’s greatness; how fast he kicked or his incredible nunchuck skills. Nguyen seems to intentionally ignore much of Bruce’s physical prowess. Instead he introduces us to the person of Bruce Lee through the stories of those who shared their lives with him and shows why Bruce’s legacy endures beyond the martial arts world.

Cultural Context – Much like George Lucas wanted to start Star Wars in the middle of the action to immediately grab audiences, Be Water starts at the moment Bruce is about to realize his superstardom – his return to Hong Kong. Many people know the story of Bruce going back to Hong Kong after running into too many walls in the U.S. What’s fascinating about this film is the societal context that it provides to mirror Bruce’s own personal journey. Hong Kong during that time is described as a period of frustration and push back against colonialist forces like the British and the Japanese. It explains that Bruce’s films resonated with Chinese audiences because it inspired pride in their identity. It’s hard not to think about how similar the general sentiment is today, both in Hong Kong and of course here in the U.S. The players may be different, but the emotions are similar. Bruce was a cultural hero to many, which in part explains why his legacy still inspires today. Nguyen does a masterful job throughout the film interweaving commentary from journalists like Sam Ho and Jeff Chang to provide the cultural context of the United States and Hong Kong during Bruce’s time. It adds a layer and weight to the documentary that previous documentaries have lacked. It makes sense that this perspective would come from an Asian-American director. Nguyen has talked his parents’ immigration experience and it’s completely understandable that Bruce’s appeal to someone like Nguyen would be about more than physical fighting skills. At one point Chang says that Bruce’s very presence on screen was a protest. And I think that comment is probably the best summary of this film as a whole.

By Nien-Ken Alec Lu

The Bad
The Last Dance – Imagine you go to In-N-Out for a meal and they tell you they’re out of burgers. Instead, today they have some new chicken sandwiches. They might have some incredible chicken sandwiches, but when you were mentally prepared to eat a delicious burger, it’s tough to make the pivot to eating a chicken sandwich. It’s no secret that in the COVID-19 era, studios and audiences alike are starved for content. For a company like ESPN, which exists to cover live sports, this pandemic has been particularly challenging. Shrewdly, the company fast tracked the 30 for 30 documentaries that it had in the pipeline, including the pop culture phenomenon that was The Last Dance, chronicling Michael Jordan and his legendary career with the Chicago Bulls. ESPN struck ratings gold with that series, and followed it up with a two-part documentary on shamed cycling icon Lance Armstrong. Next week, ESPN is premiering a documentary on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the most famous baseball season in modern history. These projects all very firmly sports stories, making ESPN the natural fit. However, Be Water is very much not a sports story. Putting aside the fact that Bruce was never really a competitive martial artist, this film in particular isn’t even about martial arts. I think the expectations that come with watching a documentary on ESPN about a martial artist could impact how the film is received broadly. As my overall rating below reflects, I very much enjoyed the documentary. But while I was watching, the mental disconnect of having it air on ESPN sometimes took me out of the experience.

Voice Overs – Nguyen made the interesting decision to tell this story purely through a combination of old home video footage of Bruce, modern shots of relevant locations, well known pop culture video and cut scenes from Bruce’s films. While an extensive list of people who knew Bruce participated in the film, we don’t actually see any of them until the very end of the film. Instead, we hear their voices laid over the relevant video, with their names and brief descriptive titles provided. The payoff at the end is beautiful, with each major participant finally shown holding an old picture of them and Bruce. However, this takes place essentially during the credits. Nguyen said in interviews that he made the decision to present the story that way because images of the speakers today would contrast too much with the older footage of Bruce. While I completely understand that decision, I found the floating voices hard to follow and the brief descriptions of the speakers a bit unsatisfying. For example, the uninitiated viewer might not know who Sam Ho and Jeff Chang are, and why they’re qualified to speak in the documentary. Of course Shannon Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar need no introduction, but I think in some cases, some introductions would have been appropriate. Again, the payoff at the end is so wonderful that it’s hard to complain too much, but I found myself having to rewind a few times to try to figure out who was talking at a given moment.

By Marcos Chin

The Pocky
Be Water in 2020 – When Bao Nguyen sought out to make this film, there was no way he could have known just how relevant it would be in June 2020. I write that with some hesitation because the social unrest going on right now is explicitly about Black Lives Matter and the unceasing racial brutalization that Black Americans face in this country. So I don’t want to center Asian-Americans during this time. Instead, Be Water’s relevance comes not from the fact that it’s about Bruce Lee, but because it’s actually a story about America. Seeing footage of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Civil Rights movement and watching Muhammad Ali vehemently voicing his objection to the Vietnam War really hammered home the idea that not much has changed between the 1960s and 2020. At least not enough has changed. All of that was happening around Bruce in the 60s as he was trying to find himself and pursue his career. Just as it’s happening around us now.

Rating – 4.5/5 Pocky