Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was friends with Bruce Lee before the actor’s death in 1973.

By Alaa Abdeldaiem
August 19, 2019

NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not very happy with the way martial arts legend Bruce Lee was depicted in Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In a column published on The Hollywood Reporter over the weekend, Abdul-Jabbar detailed his criticisms of the way Tarantino portrayed Lee and called it "sloppy" and "racist." The six-time title NBA champion first met Lee while studying martial arts at UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar credits Lee for teaching him discipline and spirituality, characteristics Abdul-Jabbar said allowed him to play a 20-year NBA career relatively injury-free.

Abdul-Jabbar, who noted that he was a fan of Tarantino’s films, was disappointed with how the filmmaker chose to portray Lee’s role in his new movie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Lee, played by Mike Moh, on the set of his Green Hornet TV show. Lee's character is about being able to beat Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, in a fight. The conversation ends up leading to a fight between Lee and stuntman Cliff Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt. Booth wins the fight by throwing Lee into a car.

"Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being."

Abdul-Jabbar goes on to describe how in their years of friendship, Lee “spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV.”

"That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way," he wrote. "The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here."

Lee’s daughter Shannon has also spoken up about how Lee was portrayed in the film. In an interview with The Wrap, Shannon said she was disheartened that her father "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."

Tarantino defended his film following Shannon's interview by saying that "Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy" and that he "didn't just make a lot of that up."

Abdul-Jabbar took the opposing view to end the column, emphasizing that Lee "always politely declined" when "some random jerk" challenged him to a fight. 

"He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways."

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