Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is attracting strong box office numbers and positive reviews, but like most Tarantino films it’s also proved to be a magnet for controversy.
WARNING: Mild spoilers below.
The film is set in 1969 Los Angeles, which means a bunch of figures from that era of Hollywood make appearances, including Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson, and Steve McQueen. There’s also a scene that features Bruce Lee, and it’s this depiction that’s causing controversy.
In the scene, Lee (played by Mike Moh) agrees to fight stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on the set of a TV show after the two trade macho insults. Lee wins the first and Booth the second, but an interruption stops the third round.
Shannon Lee, daughter of the martial arts and cinematic legend, criticized the film as “disheartening” for how it portrays both her father’s personality and minimized his struggle as an actor of color in that era.
“He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air…and not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”
“It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she added.
And it wasn’t just Shannon who objected to Tarantino’s vision of her father.
The only "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" review that I need. @brucelee fought his entire career against being turned into the kind of stereotype described here. Nothing but respect for the actor. This is about Tarantino's portrayal of Bruce. https://t.co/whbFx7d2Jb
— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) July 30, 2019
If you watch the new Tarantino, and there's any kind of audience, take note of how the audience reacts to the Bruce Lee impersonation. This is what systemic racism looks like. Not the performance which is perfect, the reaction which is hard-wired into members of this culture.
— Walter Chaw 周瑜 (@mangiotto) July 28, 2019
I'm not an expert on Bruce Lee, but I did sit through that scene wondering why Quentin decided to humiliate one of the only non-white characters in the movie by showing that a middle-aged white guy could kick his ass.
— Daniel Montgomery (@dan_something) July 30, 2019
I had a meta moment of feeling like Bruce Lee watching ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in the film ‘Dragon’ where everyone else was laughing but him. (Spoiler Alert) I also said, out loud, in the theater, “That’s not possible!” when Bruce was taken down by Cliff (played by Brad Pitt). pic.twitter.com/xaEmHHi0Bq
— Nancy Wang Yuen (@nancywyuen) July 30, 2019
Lee biographer Matthew Polly agreed, saying that Tarantino, as is his style, took liberties with how he portrayed Lee. “Bruce Lee was often a cocky, strutting, braggart, but Tarantino took those traits and exaggerated them to the point of a ‘SNL’ caricature,” Polly said.
For his part, Tarantino hasn’t responded to the criticism.
Never one to shy away from an homage, Tarantino put plenty of Lee references in Kill Bill, and in a recent interview, Mike Moh said it was clear when they met that Tarantino “reveres” Lee.
Shannon Lee, who pointedly refused to criticize Moh, isn’t buying it.
“People have said to me, ‘But Quentin Tarantino is such a huge Bruce Lee fan.’ I actually don’t think he is.”