When Bruce Lee was making martial arts movies in the early 1970s, it would never have occurred to him that his films would be screened at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art 45 years later.
But that’s just what happened with Eternal Bruce Lee, a five-film retrospective of Lee’s work that screened at the museum in January and February. The show reflected Lee’s gradual metamorphosis from martial arts legend to bona fide cultural icon in the US.
“Lee is one of the most iconic action figures in the history of cinema. He elevated the kung fu genre to new heights,” says La Frances Hui, MoMA’s associate curator of film. “He has many fans among martial arts practitioners and those who like martial arts movies. But the MoMA experience helped take him to a different level, as our audience is made up of die-hard cinephiles.”
Some new digital 4K restorations acted as the catalyst to give Lee the retrospective he deserved, notes Hui. “I knew that this was the moment to bring him back to the big screen. A lot of people have seen his work on VHS tapes or computers, but they came out to see them again. They wanted to experience the films in a room full of fans.”
Perceptions in the US of Lee – who was born in San Francisco in 1940 but achieved worldwide fame working in Hong Kong – have been fluid. He became known to US television audiences as Kato, a stereotypical Asian sidekick to the hero in the 1966 action show The Green Hornet. Later, his Hong Kong films saw him idolized by African-American youths, as well as Latinos.
“Lee had a very empowering presence,” says Hui. “He was embraced by the Black audience and the Latino audience. It was unexpected, and very unusual, for an Asian man to get that kind of support.
“He’s not very big, and he usually fights men who are a lot bigger and taller than himself. For people on the margins of society, for those who are powerless, it’s a special moment to see an underdog rising to the top. Whenever Lee enters a fight, he likes to take off his top – he has a great body, so why not. But that also sends a special message: here is a person who has absolutely nothing but his own body. This is encouraging to an audience who feels powerless. It says that, with discipline and hard work, they can realize their potential.”
Lee, who died in 1973, has also become an icon and a role model to Asian Americans. “Strictly speaking, Bruce is an Asian American – he was born in San Francisco, and raised in Hong Kong. He was part of the globalized world, and was the first Asian to become a global phenomenon,” says Hui.
Lee experienced racism in the US – the role of the martial arts master in the 1972 television series Kung Fu was written for Lee, but it ultimately went to David Carradine, because Carradine was Caucasian.
“Asian American actors still have trouble getting good roles,” says Hui, who grew up in Hong Kong. “But Lee was able to rise above it. He never compromised himself to become a global star. He was fully himself.”
Lee’s fighting style of Jeet Kune Do – which is a hybrid of Wing Chun and other established styles – is another example of his multicultural identity, says Hui.
“He called Jeet Kune Do the style with no style. It incorporates different influences, including Western boxing. This says a lot about who he was. He grew up in a multicultural world, and was aware of the influences of many different cultures. Jeet Kune Do is very similar in idea to hip hop or jazz music – a style with no style which includes all styles. So in a way, Lee was a very American man.”