A new Bruce Lee biopic portrays the martial arts legend as little more than a white guy’s sidekick

Image: Paul Yeung/Reuters
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Fans of Bruce Lee are slamming an upcoming biopic of the martial arts legend. His daughter Shannon Lee calls the film “a travesty on many levels.”

Birth of the Dragon, which premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival, tells the story of Lee’s fight against kung fu master Wong Jack Man in Oakland in 1964. It was a formative event that has received minimal attention in the mythology surrounding Lee, as Charles Russo wrote on Vice, but the film is not entirely historically accurate. Deadline calls it a “mashup of fact and fable.”

American actor Billy Magnussen, who plays Lee’s fictional friend Steve McKee, dominates the film. McKee’s character shares equal time with Lee in the trailer, and Lee doesn’t appear until 30 seconds into the trailer.

Shannon Lee said the movie was made without consent from her family, and that the portrayal of her father was inaccurate and insulting.

Fans are livid. “You turned a biopic about Bruce Lee (a real Asian person) into a ridiculous story about a fictional White guy,” wrote Reddit user Killingzoo. ”Hollywood social engineering trash. Again with the White man save the world trope. This movie is so cliché. Even Bruce Lee is sidelined to make way for a White guy,” wrote another commenter.

It’s the latest racial controversy in Hollywood, which has come under fire for whitewashing movies by casting white actors in non-white roles, such as Leonardo DiCaprio as Persian poet Rumi and Scarlett Johansson in a Japanese role in an anime adaptation.

While Hollywood is getting the blame, Birth of the Dragon was financed by a Chinese company, Kylin Pictures. And even though Lee’s importance is diminished, some fans of the Asian actors in the film—Hong Kong actor Philip Ng, who plays Bruce Lee, and Chinese actor Yu Xia who plays Wong Jack Man—have expressed admiration for them on Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social media platform.

“This is more Bruce Lee than the real Bruce Lee,” commented Weibo user Winnie under Ng’s Weibo post. Another wrote, “Oh Yu Xia is so cool and I didn’t anticipate that Bruce Lee would look like a street gangster” (links in Chinese, registration required).