Bruce Lee was one of the most iconic movie stars the world has known. His name is synonymous with martial arts, and he was a titan of martial arts films.
And yet, even he struggled with racism in Hollywood. CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.
His daughter, Shannon Lee, explains how.
“My father wrote this TV show for a pitch for himself to star in. He submitted it and they were talking about it and ultimately, they said that ‘you know, we don’t think at the end of the day that a Chinese man can be the lead in an American TV series,’” Lee said.
The TV show didn’t have a name, but the pitch was fairly specific: The story of a Chinese immigrant who is also a martial arts master, who takes part in the San Francisco Tong Wars in the 19th century and journeys through the American West.
He was turned down. But then months later, a very similar story appeared on TV with no credit to Bruce Lee and with one major difference: The lead role had been given to a Caucasian man, who would play a character half Chinese. It’s a term known today as ‘yellowface.’
The studio claimed a similar story had already been in the works, but most of Lee’s family and associates felt his idea had simply been taken and appropriated.
“That was just the way it was done in the day. But yes, it seems insanity to me,” Lee said today.
The pitch was shelved. Bruce Lee put it in a box and when he died 46 years ago, it was left amongst many items, gathering dust.
When Shannon Lee took over running his estate around 2000, she came across the script. She looked at it with nostalgia, having grown up knowing about it.
But ultimately, she didn’t know what to do with it.
Then, a few years ago came the call that would bring Lee’s vision to life. Justin Lin, the Hollywood director known for hits such as ‘The Fast and the Furious’ called and asked Shannonif the script existed.
She said it was common knowledge around Los Angeles:
“If you’re a Bruce Lee fan at all, then you’ve heard this story that he created a TV show, that he was rejected and all that.”
Lin asked if they could get together to make it happen, and they did.
Shot in Cape Town in 2017 and just released in the U.S., it’s already been renewed for a second season because it was so well received.
The fact that the main character in Warrior is an immigrant isn’t lost on Shannon Lee.
Many people often mistakenly believe Bruce Lee was an immigrant himself, but he was born in San Francisco. He spent his formative years in Hong Kong, but being an outsider and feeling a sense of exclusion meant he had an understanding of the struggles many immigrants face.
“He famously said on a TV show, when asked ‘do you think of yourself as North American or do you think of yourself as Chinese’ and he said ‘I like to think of myself as a human being. Because under the sky, there’s one family really.’ My father was about inclusion, not exclusion. I really feel it would have been a point of pain for him like it is for many of us, what is happening these days” adds Lee.
Hollywood has struggled for years to show that it’s moved on: Claims of the Oscars being ‘so white’ and accusations of yellowface still make headlines in this town, but the success of movies like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ with Asians cast in the leading roles, and Marvel’s recent decision to make a movie featuring a Chinese superhero document some progress, along with shows like Warrior, emphasizing the importance of authenticity on screens both big and small.