ESPN’s ‘Be Water’ a Unique Look at Bruce Lee

by Stephen Silver

30 for 30 Bruce Lee Documentary ‘Be Water’ Review

Yes, it’s something of a counterintuitive choice for an ESPN 30 for 30. Bruce Lee, while undoubtedly an athlete, was more associated with the movies than he was with competitive sports. Plus, the 30 for 30 series, at least according to its original mandate, was to focus on events that have happened since ESPN’s founding in 1980, and Lee died in 1973. 

In addition to that the film, directed by Bao Nguyen, doesn’t really much resemble the style or structure of a typical 30 for 30. Nonetheless, it’s quite good, and represents a unique way in to the Bruce Lee mythos, both for longtime fans or those new to Lee’s work. 

‘Be Water’ debuted at Sundance earlier this year, and was on the schedule of March’s South by Southwest Film Festival before that festival was cancelled, is different as can be from the non-30 for 30 ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which many of us spent the spring watching in this same Sunday night time slot. But it represents a huge improvement over Lance, the previous weeks’ subpar re-examination of the life and lies of Lance Armstrong

Bruce Lee ESPN 30 for 30 Be Water Review

The film, utilizing home movies, interviews with relatives (including his widow, daughter and brother), and footage from his TV shows and movies, looks back at Lee’s life and career ,which were cut short when he died in Hong Kong at age 32. This led to some bizarre conspiracy theories, which the film, probably wisely, doesn’t see fit to spend time on. 

‘Be Water’, while produced with the cooperation of Lee’s family, isn’t nearly as beholden to the wishes of its subject as the recent ESPN films about Jordan and Armstrong. 

The film spends a great deal of time on Lee’s acting career, which consisted from a brief a co-starring run on The Green Hornet and only four movies prior to the actor’s death, although his most famous film, Enter the Dragon, was released posthumously, as was Game of Death, which utilized doubles and other gimmicks. A mockumentary about that movie, Finishing the Game, was released in 2007. 

‘Be Water’ goes quite a bit about how wildly racist Hollywood was towards Asian performers for a good part of its history, and was especially reluctant to cast Asian males in lead roles. This led Lee to make films in Hong Kong towards the end of his life, as that’s where he died. 

Bao Nguyen earlier directed the Saturday Night Live documentary Live From New York, best known for the revelation that longtime SNL production designer Akira Yoshimura had been called in to play Mr. Sulu in decades worth of Star Trek parodies, since, until the hiring of Bowen Yang last year, the show had never had an Asian cast member. 

If you only know Bruce Lee from his historically iffy depiction in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or other ancillary references to him in popular culture over the course of the last 40 years or so, Be Water is a worthwhile and very well-done corrective. It may not feel much like a 30 for 30, but it’s still a very good one. 

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