Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has taken the country by storm since its release earlier this summer. It’s one of the most audacious films of his career, and as with any Tarantino project, it’s been no stranger to controversy as some fans and critics have questioned the moral and ethical implications of its revisionist history.
There’s obviously a lot to sift through in terms of its portrayal of Sharon Tate and the Manson Family, but there’s another scene that’s sparked plenty of backlash on its own, one featuring a fictionalized version of legendary action star Bruce Lee that has prompted scores of friends, family, and fans to decry Tarantino for what some argue is a borderline racist depiction of the martial arts icon.
Now, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has joined the chorus with an article he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, detailing why he believes Tarantino’s film disrespects his friend and onscreen co-star.
That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. 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.
I might even go along with the skewered version of Bruce if that wasn’t the only significant scene with him, if we’d also seen a glimpse of his other traits, of his struggle to be taken seriously in Hollywood. Alas, he was just another Hey Boy prop to the scene. The scene is complicated by being presented as a flashback, but in a way that could suggest the stuntman’s memory is cartoonishly biased in his favor.
Indeed, Tarantino gives himself a lot of leeway here. As Kareem points out, the sequence is presented as a flashback, which would naturally be biased toward the character Cliff’s memory of the event. And it’s not even close to the most audacious or as some argue, offensive, piece of revisionist history in this or other of his movies.
Still, the criticism is warranted. Tarantino has the right to his artistic license, but he also has to answer for those choices. He hasn’t done a particularly good job of that lately, publicly calling Lee “kind of an arrogant guy.” In any case, the dialogue is an important one, given America’s current attitude toward immigrants and the influence of popular culture. Though don’t expect Tarantino to budge on this point anytime soon.