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  • As you might suspect, Bruce Lee trained hard. Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN
  • Young Bruce lived in Seattle, attending the University of Washington and meeting his future wife when he was training her in martial arts. Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN
  • Like the young Michael Jordan shown in The Last Dance, young Bruce is… pretty dang stylish. Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN
  • You did not want to be on the other end of this, we'd presume. Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN
  • The image of Bruce Lee many of us likely retain (give or take some facial hair). Bruce Lee Family Archive / ESPN

ESPN may not be thriving these days due to a severe lack of live sports, but the company's documentary arm is arguably having its biggest moment since the introduction of the 30 for 30 franchise. The Last Dance, the network's 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan's 1998 Chicago Bulls, became ESPN's most-watched documentary ever in the midst of our still-in-progress, gameless pandemic. So naturally, the company had two more personality-centric projects waiting in the wings to hopefully continue the momentum and establish Sunday Night Sports Docs as a thing.

But last week's endeavor—Lance, a two-part series on the disgraced cyclist—tanked, kinda hard in fact. Audiences may simply be sick of a guy who repeatedly lies to the public no matter how much money for cancer research he's raised. But this week, ESPN debuts Be Water, a feature-length look at the life of martial arts icon Bruce Lee. And if you think Lee kicked ass on-screen (which, duh), you may leave this 95-minute exploration even more impressed

Just as a reminder of who we're talking about here—the final fight of Enter the Dragon.

Kinetic genius

If all you know of Bruce Lee is Enter the Dragon or more recent pop-culture shoutouts in board games and Tarantino flicks, Be Water sets out to show how much of a badass the actor was without even considering his fists. This film may air on a sports network, but it's less interested in Lee's undeniable martial arts abilities and accomplishments and more intrigued by his societal ones. Leveraging Lee's own personal writings, interviews with friends and loved ones, plus loads of family archival footage, viewers will get to see Lee the dogged creator, Lee the vulnerable philosopher, Lee the family man, Lee the Chinese American man at times still working through his own identity.

Director Bao Nguyen spent the last five years putting together this film, which is well-crafted enough to have earned a premiere at SXSW 2020 before that event met its COVID-19 fate. In his director's statement on the film, Nguyen describes Lee as the first onscreen image of a strong Asian man he came across as a child (in a very modern flourish, Lee's break was through a superhero franchise, playing sidekick Kato in a Green Hornet TV series). Learning about Lee's off-camera life later only made the martial arts idol more inspiring to this director.

"I saw someone who looked like me for the first time, with an unapologetic confidence and magnetism that resonated on every inch of the silver screen," Nguyen writes. "Bruce Lee is the epitome of the American story. Like him and so many other Americans before, my family, as Vietnamese war refugees, left their familiar homeland looking for a better future for themselves. It's a side of Bruce's story that isn't always emphasized. I hope by the end of the film, audiences have learned something new. Not just about Bruce Lee but also how America has treated the 'other' in the past."

Lee's life turns out to be a particularly apt tale for our present moment, where COVID-19 fears bred anti-Asian sentiment and thousands continue to take to the streets in support of black Americans. The actor rose to prominence in the United States during the 1960s civil rights era, and Be Water again and again shows him as a man of his time pushing for equality across many aspects of his life. As a martial arts trainer, Lee didn't discriminate students by race at a time when many others would only provide lessons to people like them (individuals as famous as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trained with Lee, and the basketball star and activist later agreed to be in one of Lee's films, Game of Death). When Lee continued to meet resistance in Hollywood due to fears about making an Asian American a leading man, he simply created his own opportunities, pivoting to writing and production after moving to Hong Kong. As a man who called that country home for many years, he'd write anti-colonial messages and images into his films. And as an actor, he wouldn't settle foRead More – Source

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