August 15, 2023
From Socialist Worker (UK)

Bruce Lee Hong Kong US racism

Bruce Lee starring in Enter the Dragon

The most influential film of the 1970s was not Taxi Driver, The Godfather or Star Wars. The movie that changed both cinema and wider culture most profoundly was a Hong Kong martial arts movie, Enter the Dragon. It’s 50 years old this week and back in some cinemas.

It created genres and sub-genres, and made martial arts a must-have ingredient of action cinema. It made a global star of Bruce Lee. Lee has been reinvented many times—Bruceploitation movies was a genre of its own. 

Before Lee Asian men were depicted as servants, sinister villains or buffoons. They were usually played by white actors—Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a low point of a trope that continues to this day.

In the US Lee grew exasperated at being a sidekick in the TV series The Green Hornet. He was allowed to train leading male celebrities but not to be one. Lee’s involvement in developing the 1970s TV show Kung Fu saw him passed over in favour of a white actor.

Back in Hong Kong as a lead, his movies were about resistance. He stood with factory workers against criminal corruption in The Big Boss. In Fist of Fury, he fights against colonial oppression in 1920s Shanghai—and subliminally British-ruled Hong Kong. 

In The Way of the Dragon, he saves the family restaurant and beats up Chuck Norris. These made US studios take an interest.

Enter the Dragon was designed to maximise international appeal. But for Warner Brothers, Bruce Lee alone could not carry the film. So white guy Roper was played by a star—John Saxon—and black actor Jim Kelly was Williams, for the growing blaxploitation market.

In the US trailer, the three characters appear in succession—Roper, Williams then Lee—and are called “the deathly three.” But it is all Lee’s film. He plays a Shaolin monk recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate a crime empire run from a private island.

Enter the Dragon is essentially a James Bond movie—and the best Bond film of the 1970s by far. Lee plays the beats of cynical bravado. He sneaks around in the dark finding secret passages. And he single-handedly takes out dozens of guards, but with more balletic cool than Bond. 

The bad guy Han is a Bond villain, complete with a white, fluffy cat and various deadly prosthetic hands—from bear claw to steak knives! 

But it has politics, including that Williams and Roper are both Vietnam vets.

The 1960s-70s Kung Fu popularity in the US owed much to a cultural revolt. After the Tet Offensive pushed back the US in Vietnam in 1968, the idea that you could beat a far stronger enemy with a bit of philosophy and skill was popular. It became a powerful symbol with all sorts of cultural ripples. 

And hippies looking to versions of oriental thinking—in a somewhat orientalist way—was a rebellion against the ideologies of US imperialism.

It could also be marketed, and made safer and saleable. Made for £800,000, Enter the Dragon has made £2 billion in the 50 years since its release. Lee smashed open the door for Asian representation with his bare hands. There are plenty who would like to close it again. 

For much profit Quentin Tarantino “borrowed” wholesale from Hong Kong cinema in general and Lee in particular. He returned the favour with spite and snark portraying Lee as “a little man with a big mouth”.

There are better legacies. In a 1971 interview Lee famously said, “Be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

In 2019 a sign at a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong said, “Be water! We are formless. We are shapeless. We can flow. We can crash. We are like water!” 

Lee’s words became a way of circumventing the police through waves of high-concentration rallies that could quickly and spontaneously disperse. Black Lives Matter protests in the US also took up the slogan.

So the best legacy of Lee goes on.