Review of "Be Water" -- the Bruce Lee Documentary on ESPN
June 09, 2020
The Bruce Lee documentary that aired this week on ESPN, titled "Be Water," is a must-see for any Bruce Lee fan. The film aired on June 7 but is being repeated on ESPN and you can stream it on the ESPN Plus app.
It contains photos and old film footage that I have never seen before, and I have collected and devoured Bruce Lee material since 1973.
"Be Water" is a very timely film, especially in light of the George Floyd murder and the protests against racism during the past three weeks.
Bruce Lee was the victim of racism, and he fought hard to overcome the prejudice that white Americans -- and Hollywood -- had against Asians. He refused to play a stereotype, especially the old-style "chop chop" pig-tailed Oriental image that was the butt of humor in American culture.
It is an eye-opening film. I grew up in the racist South in the Fifties and Sixties, but when I was 13 I watched "The Green Hornet" every week, and I thought nothing of the fact that Bruce Lee, as Kato, was Chinese. In fact, it was mysterious and cool to see his kung-fu in the TV show.
It would still be six or seven years before a buddy and I sneaked into a drive-in theater to see "The Chinese Connection" in the summer of 1973. A couple of weeks later, I saw a very short article in the newspaper that reported Bruce Lee had died.
I was surprised by the news. That strong young guy in "Chinese Connection" was dead. My buddy and I thought the movie was horrible, but I kept saying, "That Bruce Lee guy is really good."
A month later, I went to see "Enter the Dragon" and everything changed. I enrolled that September in my first martial arts class, and it has been part of my life ever since.
There are photos and film footage of Bruce in "Be Water" that show him throughout his life, and I particularly enjoyed the film of him dancing as a young man.
The documentary traces his life and his sudden death. There are no talking heads, but Bruce's family and friends speak over the photos and videos.
The title, "Be Water," came from part of Bruce Lee's Taoist philosophy. He is shown in the now-famous interview that he did in Hong Kong in 1971, when he says, "Water is shapeless, formless. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put water into a kettle, it becomes the kettle. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
And this is my complaint about the movie. This is where it falls short.
Bruce Lee's fighting philosophy was to adapt to, and flow around obstacles thrown at you by an opponent.
I practice this in my Tai Chi push hands and in self-defense. When an opponent touches me, when he gets close and grabs me, I have practiced to the point where I relax, like water, and I don't let him get a firm grasp.
It is like grabbing a handful of water, as Bruce Lee describes it in the film. But what we are working on is to relax, while maintaining internal strength and correct body mechanics, and we don't let our opponent find our center.
We find our opponent's center, however. We flow around his strength like water and we find his weakness. Like water, we find a way to go where we want to go.
If a stream of water encounters a rock, it flows around the rock. If an opponent punches at me or grabs me, I neutralize his force, go with it, and flow around it until I hit him or take him to the ground. At least, that is my goal.
That is the self-defense philosophy of "Be Water."
That same self-defense philosophy can be applied to your life.
It is illustrated by Bruce Lee's reaction to the racism he faced in Hollywood. He wanted to be the star of the "Kung-Fu" TV show, but studio executives did not think Americans would accept an Asian star. They also thought Bruce's personality was more geared to fighting, not to the peaceful nature of Kwai Chang Caine. So, in a racist move, Warner Brothers hired David Carradine, and they made him half American and half Chinese.
It was the ultimate obstacle in Bruce's life, and what did he do?
He flowed around it, like water. He went to Hong Kong and he made the movies he wanted to make, culminating in "The Way of the Dragon." By this time, Hollywood paid attention, and cast him in "Enter the Dragon."
By adapting and going with the flow, Bruce became the biggest action star in the world. Unfortunately, he was dead before he was able to realize his full success.
"Be Water" should have hammered home the lesson that the "Be Water" philosophy promotes -- not only for self-defense but also for life.
What obstacles are you running into in your life? How can you flow around them, adapt and change, to achieve your goals and dreams?
I have used this philosophy in my personal life many times, not only in self-defense, but in adapting to and flowing around the loss of jobs, the loss of a daughter, the loss of marriages, the loss of a lung, a heart problem, and now a pacemaker. I will keep flowing, and changing, and growing, and I will continue to improve and understand more deeply because it is part of who I am.
Bruce Lee would understand this very well. THAT is the lesson of his fighting art and philosophy. It is a philosophy that you can use every day.
"Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it," his wife Linda says in the movie, as if that is the message to be taken from his life.
Yes, that is one lesson, but it is not the lesson implied by the title.
"Be Water" is an excellent documentary about Bruce Lee -- a must-see for fans. But it should have been much more inspirational. It should have done a better job of teaching viewers this key lesson; to be water and to adapt and flow around obstacles that impede your progress. Do not let anything stop you, my friend.
My daughter Belinda made a great observation about this film. She said it was as if the producers "concentrated on the finger, and missed all that heavenly glory."
By all means, see this film. But for a much better experience in learning about Bruce Lee, I recommend Matthew Polly's amazing book, "Bruce Lee: A Life."
-- by Ken Gullette