Basketball legend and iZombie actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become the latest person with close personal ties to martial arts icon Bruce Lee to take issue with the way he was depicted in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood..., the biggest non-franchise movie of the summer and one of the filmmaker's most financially successful movies yet. In the film, Lee was depicted as an arrogant and disrespectful blowhard who could not hold his own in a real fight -- something we know because he picked one at the drop of a hat. Lee's daughter had previously objected to the characterization, with Tarantino defending the film against her criticism.
Abdul-Jabbar, who studied under Lee and appeared in the film Game of Death alongside the Jeet Kune Do founder, said that Tarantino shirked his responsibility to do basic research as a filmmaker -- something that Abdul-Jabbar would know a little something about, since he has been a writer on TV, film, and comics projects in the past. Most recently, he worked in the writers' room on Veronica Mars and was the credited write on "Entering a World of Pain," the sixth episode of the recent revival of the series. He also wrote the documentary On the Shoulders of Giants with co-writer and producer Anna Waterhouse.
"[E]ven though we know the movie is fiction, those scenes will live on in our shared cultural conscience as impressions of those real people, thereby corrupting our memory of them built on their real-life actions," Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a column at The Hollywood Reporter, where he is a regular contributor. "That’s why filmmakers have a responsibility when playing with people’s perceptions of admired historic people to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character. Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being."
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood..., which is rumored to have a four-hour cut coming to Netflix, centers on an over-the-hill Western actor and his bodyguard, who inadvertently become embroiled in a sequence of events that bring them into the orbit of the "Manson Family," the murderous cult controlled by Charles Manson. In the film, a version of Lee appears, nominally there to help teach fighting skills to people on the set of a movie, but ends up fighting with Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth. While the two technically fight to a standstill, Lee was depicted as arrogant and not strong or skilled enough to offset his smaller size in a fight. The loss, though, is not what turned Abdul-Jabbar off of the depiction.
"I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "He always politely declined and moved on. First rule of Bruce’s fight club was don’t fight — unless there is no other option. He felt no need to prove himself. 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. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways."
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood... is currently playing in theaters.