Abdul-Jabbar, a longtime friend of Lee, criticized Tarantino’s handling of the character in a scathing op-ed via The Hollywood Reporter.
“Remember that time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kidney-punched a waiter for serving soggy croutons in his tomato soup? How about the time the Dalai Lama got wasted and spray-painted ‘Karma Is a Beach’ on the Tibetan ambassador’s limo? Probably not, since they never happened,” the basketball star wrote. “But they could happen if a filmmaker decides to write those scenes into his or her movie. And, even though we know the movie is fiction, those scenes will live on in our shared cultural conscience as impressions of those real people, thereby corrupting our memory of them built on their real-life actions.”
According to Abdul-Jabbar, Tarantino was “one of his favorite filmmakers” due to his “giddy energy” and moviemaking techniques.
“That’s what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness,” he was quoted as saying.
Abdul-Jabbar, who was the villain in Lee’s 1978 film “Game of Death,” explained the harm in portraying an Asian American icon as a “comedic prop for Brad Pitt” as it affects how he will be remembered in culture.
Abdul-Jabbar pointed out that Lee dedicated his life to breaking barriers and demolishing stereotypes around Asian actors in Hollywood. Getting beaten by a stuntman who was already past his prime was precisely the type of role that Lee would have not accepted.
“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,” said Abdul-Jabbar.
He further noted that while Tarantino had “the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants,” crafting his character in a “sloppy and somewhat racist way” has effectively tarnished Lee’s legacy.
Lee’s own daughter, Shannon Lee, criticized the portrayal of her father as feisty and fight-happy in an interview with The Wrap.
“It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she said.
Tarantino has since argued that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” should be treated as the fictional movie that it is.
During a recent Moscow press conference for his new film, Tarantino also justified the cocky portrayal by stating that, “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy.”
“The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up,” the director continued, “I heard him say things like that to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Mohammad Ali,’ well yeah he did. Alright? Not only did he say that but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.”
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