Bruce Lee’s first student in America was black. His name was Jesse Glover, and the two met when Lee was living in Seattle. What spurred Glover to learn kung fu was an act of police brutality, an issue that unfortunately continues to disproportionately affect black men today. Be Water, the ESPN documentary chronicling Lee’s life, directed by Bao Nguyen, establishes Lee and Glover’s relationship as one of cultural exchange, where the roles of student and teacher go both ways.
Lee’s experiences in America are shaped by the multi-racial compatriots he makes early on, like his first love Amy Sanbo, who grew up in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. As Nguyen points out, the idea of “be water” isn’t just about kung fu, but the dynamic idea of American identity. That malleable philosophy remains relevant today, even informing the way that modern protesters in Hong Kong organize amongst each other.
But in Lee’s adopted homeland of America, Nguyen shows us how Lee set an example of how to be a great ally in causes like the civil rights movement, and the empathy and compassion he possessed for his fellow citizens. As an outspoken advocate for Asian-American rights, he fought for representation both here and in Hong Kong. And due to his unexpected passing, the majority of Lee’s activism lives on in his body of work, but also in how he lived his life. Yet compounding the tragedy of Lee’s untimely death is a difficult question: Is his timely stance on social justice a reflection of Lee’s open-minded prescience, or America’s lack of civil rights progress?
We spoke to Nguyen to discuss the documentary and its sudden, impacted relevance in today’s social climate.
As two Asian-American men, I feel like we’ve spent a good portion of our lives trying not to be called Bruce Lee. He was such a pop cultural icon that so many people default to him as the Asian male archetype.
Yeah, he is this model of masculinity and confidence, but I wanted to see what his struggles were, what his insecurities were, what his vulnerabilities were. Because I think that also can be a model of masculinity, especially in today’s world where we’re talking about being more woke and attuned to the world around us. And I was able to learn more about how he was informed by the people he met early on in America in Seattle. Like Jesse Glover, his first student here. He was an African-American student and he was actually a victim of police brutality. That’s why he decided to start learning martial arts, and that really informed Bruce Lee’s idea of America and what America could be.
Amy Sanbo, his first love in America, was in the Japanese internment camps and she taught him what it meant to be Asian-American. Because I think he saw himself as very much Asian, but in Hong Kong, people saw him as American. This idea of “Asian pride” and being “Asian-American” is pretty revelatory stuff when you’re just coming to America.
Lee’s experiences in America are built on this idea of cultural exchange, and experimenting with identity. He had a very diverse circle of friends in Seattle.
One of the things that I found most powerful with Bruce’s story is that when he came to America, he wasn’t trying to assimilate right away. He understood this exchange of ideas, exchange of cultures, and how that was part of America. So he was very adamant about teaching people about martial arts, about kung fu. That was the way that he was going to contribute to America; that was the way he was going to become a part of a community.
At the same time, Jesse and Leroy [Garcia] were teaching him how to drive and be an American in different ways, like how to shoot a gun. That to me is the beauty of America, the way that we can meld each other’s most positive attributes and cultural traits and make it into our own. In a way, it’s in the title of the film too, how America is fluid. I hope people take that away too. Even though people come from different places, we can find ways to bridge the gap and build commonalities and be allies towards one another.
One thing that caught me off guard is how Lee defaults to spelling out kung fu terms in English interviews — like W-I-N-G C-H-U-N — instead of saying them first. In what ways did he help normalize Asian language and culture in the American vernacular?
Nowadays, you can see a martial arts studio in every strip mall and corner of America. At the time Bruce arrived, it was still a very new thing. There were some karate and taekwondo dojos, but it was niche. And so I think Bruce’s goal at first was to show his Chinese culture to the largest possible audience through martial arts, but then he realized the power of media, of film and television, to spread that culture to a wider audience.
The power of his representation is not just through action films, but also pushing Asian culture in a more positive and stronger point-of-view. Before, Asians were seen as the enemy because of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, but now they were being seen in heroic roles.
It’s interesting that Bruce Lee opened his first martial arts school in Oakland, another diverse city, when San Francisco has the country’s oldest Chinese population. Was that an intentional decision to set himself apart and find a wider audience?
Obviously San Francisco is known as this hub for Chinese-American culture, but Oakland is a very different place from San Francisco. It was just telling of who he was as a person and how open-minded he was to teaching martial arts and kung fu to all different types of people. I think that really informed how he lived the rest of his life, how he approached strangers and other students, and how he saw people. He didn’t see people for where they came from or what they looked like. He just saw them for who they were as a person: as a fighter, as a friend, as a student, as a neighbor.
He also had a close relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wasn’t he the one who told Bruce about the civil rights movement?
Later on in his life, Kareem becomes his student, but he’s also very much his teacher. He teaches him about the black liberation movement and civil rights. That’s one of the takeaways I got while making this film — we think of Bruce Lee as this martial arts master and teacher to many people, but he was a student in so many ways. And him as a student was more formative than anything else in how Bruce became Bruce Lee, and how he formed his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. It was melding all these things together that he’d learned from the people around him.
What about Bruce Lee as a Hong Konger? How did his experiences in colonial Hong Kong shape how he viewed the civil rights movement in America?
He was sick and tired of seeing how Chinese were represented on screen. I think it was a confluence of all these experiences he had growing up in a place like Hong Kong, which is pretty multicultural. He was able to witness Japanese occupation and British colonialism, so he understood the power dynamics of colonialism very early on. As he grew older and came of age in America, he saw the racial disparities caused by Jim Crow and all these injustices caused by systemic racism.
And so when you put those two together, I think it creates this perfect storm of being Bruce Lee. He was a badass because his habitation in these worlds was important to how he understood what it meant to be the underdog, and how he had to represent he underdog in his films. Not just on-screen, but also off-screen as a writer, a director, and often as a philosophizer.
There’s always been a spirit of inclusivity in his life and his films. He’s done scenes with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck Norris, and Enter the Dragon of course featured John Saxon, Jim Kelly, and Bolo Yeung. Do you think that’s because he always had a diverse group of friends, or because that was a way of spreading the gospel of kung fu to the masses?
I think it’s a little of both, but it’s hard to say that his early years in America didn’t help that way of thinking in terms of how he approached Hollywood. Again, he was always straddling two identities, and he always wanted to think of himself as a human being rather than as Chinese or as American. He would own up to that philosophy by treating people the same way by saying: “I’m going to treat these people as human beings rather than as white, black, or Chinese.”
One of the things that he wanted to do is bring Hong Kong cinema to Hollywood, the greatest tragedy is he wasn’t able to see that because of his early death. Representation today is still a struggle, but if Bruce Lee was alive, he would be our advocate. Then who knows how far we would have come in terms of inclusion and representation?
Do you think the title Be Water also speaks to the fluid Asian-American identity? As the documentary also points out, the term itself is still relatively new.
It speaks to how I as an Asian-American see America. My parents were refugees who came over before I was born, and now my mom thinks herself as more American than Vietnamese. That idea of America is always progressing. I always thought of the title Be Water as a metaphor for America, but also Bruce realizing that he always had to progress, and the community always had to progress. That’s also how you see the structure of the film.
I go to these moments of American history that feel like rocks — obstacles that Bruce has to get around. The civil rights movement, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Yellow Peril, and the model minority myth — those are rocks in American history that we had to get through. And even today, we’re in a moment where we’re hitting a rock. We’re crashing against this rock of not just Covid-19, but what’s going on in Minnesota and around the country.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just wrote a piece in the LA Times about George Floyd. Based on Bruce’s experiences in the 1960s, how do you think he’d perceive the modern civil rights movement?
One of the critiques of Bruce Lee in the past is that he wasn’t walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X. But you have to think about him at the time — he was struggling. He didn’t have the same stature as someone like Harry Belafonte or Marlon Brando. So I think his protest was on screen. That was the battle that he was fighting. No doubt today, with how much presence and stature that he would have, he’d be writing these op-eds the same way Kareem is, and really pushing for Asian and black solidarity.
It’s important, but it wasn’t intended. I had no idea these events would be happening while we were releasing a film, but goes to show how important it is to be allies and realize — especially as Asian-Americans and for our parents’ generation who might not know that African-Americans did so much to pave the way for us to get rights and opportunities, and they’re still paving the way. We have to stand beside them because they’ve gone through so much struggle to help us get to where we are as a people. So many times we’re just building walls and thinking about how different we are that we forget to bridge the gaps that Bruce Lee was talking about in his life.
Be Water premieres on June 7 at 9 PM EST on ESPN. It will then be available to stream on ESPN+.