It’s not often a martial arts movie star gets the Broadway treatment by screening their documentaries, but Bruce Lee was much more than a movie star, so it’s a given that they should pay tribute to him.
With a sadly short movie career that spanned 1969 - 1973 - not including the two Game of Death films – Bruce Lee was not only a movie star but a film writer, director and producer. Away from film he excelled as a martial arts teacher, founder, and a philosopher. There have been many documentaries on Bruce Lee, yet I Am Bruce Lee, directed by Pete McCormack (Facing Ali), gives a more human insight into a movie icon who at times struggled financially and occasionally succumbed to his temper. Covering his life as he yo-yoed between America and Hong Kong; starting with his birth in San Francisco, his upbringing in Hong Kong and introduction to martial arts, back to America where he started his family, his own teachings of Jeet Kune Do and his TV career, before heading up his movie career back in Hong Kong.
Facing limitations and challenging tradition was a key factor throughout Lee's life and is the apparent theme in McCormack's documentary. Lee grew up with the Japan/China conflicts from World War II and then China's own Civil War. He took up Wing Chun at thirteen under teacher Yip Man; but being half Chinese half Caucasian, Lee experienced prejudice as most of the students wouldn’t train with him. Over in America he again fought intolerances, this time against his and Linda's marriage and his desire to teach martial arts to anyone which went against Chinese tradition. In his personal life he realised the same desire, to challenge not only external but internal limitations.
In his martial arts, he believed that to become better he must learn more than one style and that sticking to only one would limit his ability to be successful in any fight. He developed Jeet Kune Do as a way to express this belief. It was not about the style or type or martial art you learnt, it was about the individual being flexible and adaptable to become good at what you do. “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
Lee's influence was, and still is, huge; his students included Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Chuck Norris. The documentary features a mix of influenced celebrities and sports personalities such as Dana White, President of Ultimate Fighting Championship, adamant Bruce Lee is the Godfather of UFC and Mixed Martial Arts, to Ivan Gene LeBell who, as a martial artist, wrestler and stuntman believes that he is the guy who used mixed styles before Bruce Lee. Celebrities from actors Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) and Ed O'Neil (Married with Children, Modern Family), and sports personalities such as Manny Pacquiao and Kobe Bryant, also contribute. Included too are close family and friends such as student Danny Inosanto who introduced Lee to the Nunchaku weapon, that allowed for some amazingly fast and fascinating fight scenes in his films.
Ironically the TV and films that gave Lee international recognition weren’t even in his plan - his passion was martial arts, not film. In Hong Kong he grew up as a huge child actor, but it was his amazing appearance at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championship with his infamous 'one inch punch' and the 'two finger push up' that led to television producer William Dozier casting him as Kato in The Green Hornet. Lee's appearance on TV as the amazing, strong fighter threw out the Asian stereotypes of sixties America, yet breaking into the film industry of Hollywood proved difficult. Jerry Weintraub offered Lee the opportunity at America's first Asian film, he stopped mid-way through Game of Death to do so for which we should be thankful for. Themes of equality and oppression ran through his first three films: The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon, all feature prejudice or Lee defending the everyman and justice. Lee also fought to ensure his philosophy teachings were included as well as the martial arts.
Lee's filmography has given us martial arts films at their finest. His sheer presence and charisma, his strength, fitness, skill and mastery of Jeet Kune Do were given the platform of the cinema screen. Lee showed how fight sequences should be shot; the camera standing still to capture the skill of the fighter, rather than dissected, blurred or cut fight sequences.
A large portion of the documentary given to Linda and Shannon Lee and close friend Danny Inosanto, to hear Bruce Lee's life through their point of view gives a more personal and connected point of view than previous documentaries. There’s no denying that Bruce Lee was a movie icon, yet I felt more drawn to the fact that in his short but vastly full life he endeavoured to improve himself and welcomed others to join him. His passion for martial arts was not to learn how to kick ass but a way to express himself and his philosophy of life. I Am Bruce Lee shows us the human behind the icon; his experiences of inequality and division, and his philosophy that simply told us to have no limitations.
I Am Bruce Lee official website