How Bruce Lee Fought Racism While Becoming a Martial Arts Icon
The world knows his name, but not many people know his story. ESPN’s exceptional documentary, Be Water, shows how much Bruce Lee struggled as an Asian American in Hollywood and the many opportunities he lost due to racism. However, his ambition to rise above was stronger than his fear.
Despite frequently experiencing rejection and racism, Bruce Lee dramatically changed the film industry, using martial arts and his inclusive attitude. He was the underdog who became a cultural hero and left a long-lasting legacy. This is how Bruce Lee fought racism while becoming a martial arts icon.
Bruce Lee Kicked Stereotypes to the Curb
Bruce Lee never felt ashamed of being Asian; he was incredibly proud of it. That’s one reason why he refused to play outrageous stereotypes of Asian Americans on TV and in films. For a long time, Asian Americans have been portrayed as the villain, servant or buck-toothed loser. (We’re looking at you, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Sixteen Candles.)
He Welcomed Everyone to His School During the Time of Segregation
In the 1960s, U.S. society was segregated, and many businesses and facilities discriminated against people based on race, except for one place: Lee’s martial arts studio. He opened his school to everyone, no matter their race, gender or age. In fact, his first student was a Black man named Jesse Glover.
He Lost Lead Roles but Didn’t Give Up
Besides dismantling prejudiced stereotypes, Lee also had another struggle to overcome: landing a lead role as an Asian-American actor. He actually proposed his own TV series called The Warrior, but the studio didn’t cast him because of his ethnicity and went for a caucasian actor instead.
He Married His Wife Before Interracial Marriage Was Fully Legal in the U.S.
Linda Lee Cadwell was one of Lee’s students before becoming his wife. At the beginning of their affair, Cadwell kept their love a secret from her family because they were against interracial relationships. However, they found out after Cadwell and Lee applied for a marriage certificate.
Lee Became His Own Boss to Achieve Superstardom
In America, Lee was tired of proving his worth as an actor. Racism consistently prevented him from achieving higher levels of fame. He moved to Hong Kong to write his own films and open a production company, but most importantly to send a message: Asian Americans can play lead roles in major films and change the entertainment industry.
He Gave Hollywood a Second Chance and Wowed Everyone
Lee’s repeated success in Hong Kong grabbed the attention of a powerful studio across the world, Hollywood’s Warner Brothers. Concord Production Inc. teamed up with Warner Brothers to produce Enter the Dragon (1973), which featured an Asian-American lead: Lee. However, working with Warner Brothers wasn’t easy. According to Lee’s daughter, Shannon, her father had to push for many of the film’s key scenes.