The new documentary explores the racism that Bruce Lee, who died at age 32 in 1973, endured in trying to land lead roles in the entertainment industry. Credit: Warner Bros.

“Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. Always be yourself; express yourself; have faith in yourself.”

— Bruce Lee

There have been many documentaries on legendary king fu movie star Bruce Lee, including The Curse of the Dragon (1993); Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000); and I Am Bruce Lee (2012).

But critics are calling a new documentary a “must-watch” for fans and soon-to-be fans of the late movie star, writer, cultural icon and martial artist who developed Jeet Kune Do, China Daily reported.

The documentary Be Water, which recently premiered as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, is named after one of Lee’s philosophies that are core to his outlook on life and martial arts.

“There were not many Asian role models in the media (then). It’s rare to even think an Asian person could be so admired by (people who are) not Asians,” Steve Aoki, music producer and musician, said during a preview of the documentary with director Bao Nguyen.

Jack Hamilton of Slate magazine called the documentary “nimble, nuanced, and at times even poetic” and ranked it ahead of the buzz-worthy Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance, China Daily reported.

NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter, a television program, on Friday and said training with Lee played a key role in the durability and longevity that allowed him to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

“Bruce always emphasized the effectiveness of stretching,” he said. “So before we worked out, we stretched all the time. And that was it. I took that to another level by studying yoga and being able to advance as a yoga student, and that really was the best preventive maintenance that I could have been doing in the off season.”

Commenting on the film, CNN‘s Brian Lowry wrote: “Bruce Lee isn’t an obvious fit for ESPN, beyond the fact lots of people enjoyed his action movies.

“Yet, Be Water proves an excellent addition to the network’s lineup of documentaries to fill the sports void, examining the martial arts star’s legacy and the circuitous, discrimination-marred path he followed to his too-short stardom.”

The new documentary also explores the racism that Lee, who died at age 32 in 1973, endured in trying to land lead roles in the entertainment industry, China Daily reported.

Before Lee, Asians were portrayed by Caucasian actors in Hollywood.

Denis Harvey of Variety wrote that Be Water portrays the late “kung fu movie” superstar as not just a singular charismatic talent but a game changer who singlehandedly broke the mold of hitherto stereotypical, largely negative Asian portrayals on Western screens. 

Referring to the racism, NBC News‘ Nadra Nittle wrote that the documentary “leaves no doubt that Lee’s talent and charisma should have earned him leading roles in Hollywood-or how the industry’s history of marginalizing people of color relegated him to playing sidekicks.”

Michael Ordona wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the documentary “succeeds in going deeper where previous Lee profiles have trod only lightly: The context of his struggle against racism in America, and his emergence as a superstar in Hong Kong.”

The 1960s in the United States was an era when civil rights movements became prominent, but it was rare that a Chinese American could use his art of unarmed combat and his philosophy to influence many races and cultures, China Daily reported.

Referring to Lee, Eric Francisco of Inverse.com, wrote: “In his brief lifetime, Bruce Lee never walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. But as an Asian-American male on television and the star of some of the most influential action movies of all time, Lee was a civil rights figure in his own terms.”

Though there would be many imitators (including a few who opportunistically used variants on his name), there would never be another Bruce Lee, Variety’s Denis Harvey wrote.

In pristine clips from his films, he remains riveting — coiled stillness erupting into sudden, lethal yet graceful movement, his acting in admittedly two-dimensional roles as engagingly confident as those fighting moves.

Though later martial arts specialists like Jackie Chan would also acquire international followings, Lee paved their way to Western audiences. Given his creative ambition, it is fascinating to ponder what else he might have achieved in a career that was really just beginning when it was abruptly snuffed out.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.