Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood has attracted its share of vitriol regarding the movie’s treatment of Bruce Lee, but its fiercest critic is someone who trained with Lee in real life—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The retired basketball titan asserts in his Hollywood Reporter column that Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee is not only racist, but also disrespectful to the man and his legacy.
In the film, Lee appears in flashback—played by Mike Moh—behind the scenes of The Green Hornet. He’s showboating, criticizing Muhammad Ali and picking a fight with tuxedo-clad stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In the ensuing fight, the two are evenly matched until Cliff throws Lee into a car, then the two are broken apart before they finish another round.
Abdul-Jabbar writes that the fictionalized portrayal corrupts our image of the man as he really was, instead reminding him of a time when Asian-Americans only played one-dimensional characters on film and in television. “The John Wayne machismo attitude of [Cliff], an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s relationship with Lee began when the basketball player was studying at UCLA and sought out Lee’s martial arts studio. There, he learned Jeet Kune Do, Lee’s hybrid martial arts style. His philosophy was to avoid fighting unless there was no other option: “The art of fighting without fighting,” he says in Enter the Dragon.
The two trained together and were good friends for several years until Lee’s death in 1973. Lee had even helped Abdul-Jabbar start his acting career, casting him as a villain in Game of Death, Lee’s final film role. Their absolutely insane fight scene can be seen in full here:
In his Hollywood Reporter article, Abdul-Jabbar credits Lee for his long NBA career: “He taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood joins a chorus of other dissenting voices, including Lee’s own daughter, Shannon. “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she said in an interview with The Wrap.
After initial pushback to the scene, Tarantino defended Lee’s portrayal, calling him “kind of an arrogant guy” in real life. And to the critics who doubt that Cliff could beat up Lee, he said, “If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up.”
But Abdul-Jabbar writes about a man who needed neither the challenge of instigating fistfights, nor the validation of beating up loudmouth aggressors. “He felt no need to prove himself,” he writes. “He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes.”