Bruce Lee: Challenging the Image of Asian Males in U.S. Cinema

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The lack of racial diversity and the widespread perpetuation of stereotypes are both large problems in the modern film industry, Hollywood in particular. While steps are being taken to solve these problems, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. However, the current racial situation is in a far better state than it was a few decades ago. This is due to the film based cultural phenomenon of the martial artist Bruce Lee. Before Bruce Lee, the portrayals of Asian men were heavily reminiscent of Dr. Fu-Manchu – a popular fictional character created by British author Sax Rohmer in 1912. Dr. Fu-Manchu was written, by modern standards, as a typical evil genius, similar in character to Dracula. The widespread popularity of this evil genius persona and its lingering association with Asian men was one of the main stereotypes perpetuated at the time, especially in Hollywood where Asian males were almost always evil masterminds, fools, servants, or unskilled laborers. However, as prior stated, the arrival of Bruce Lee challenged the idea that Asian men had to be represented in these ways, by showing he could be someone else from being himself.

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Enter the Dragon, a 1973 martial arts film, was the first film that was co-produced by both a Hong Kong production company with a Hollywood studio. Sometimes known as the “father’ of Mixed Martial Arts, the opening scene of Enter the Dragon, demonstrates why. Bruce Lee is facing his opponent, both wearing gloves and spandex speedos, with the physique of your typical mixed martial arts fighter. He incorporated several martial art styles in his fight (hence the term mixed martial arts). He did not believe in following in specific styles, as he viewed every person and every situation to be different. He was always open and flexible in obtaining new knowledge to improve his combat skills. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a United States mixed martial arts Promotion Company, held its first event in 1993, 20 years after Enter the Dragon was released, and viewing the film in 2017, it is evident Bruce Lee was way ahead of his time.

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Another scene in the movie is a fight between Bruce Lee versus Bob Wall. Before the fight, Bruce Lee shows respect by bowing to his opponent, while Bob Wall, a taller, non-Asian, more “masculine” looking character shows a display of dominance by smashing a board in front of him. The match ends up being extremely lopsided. Bruce Lee easily knocks Bob down to the ground every few moments. Bob never stands a chance never stands a chance against Bruce, and gets visibly angrier as the fight goes on. This fair fight turns into a unfair fight when Bob breaks a glass bottle to use as a weapon, but Bruce still manages to defeat his opponent without breaking a sweat.

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Bruce Lee was the first Asian hero ever seen on the screen. Before then, it was usually either white actors playing Asian characters, or Asian actors playing very “inferior” or “irrelevant” characters that had little to no importance. When he became an actor, he was not afraid to become involved in every aspect of the film, from wanting scenes to go very specific ways, challenging previous methods and ideas. He was a powerful figure, representing strength and masculinity, which was never seen before from his background. He was not only a hero to just Asian males, but was also a hero to anyone who would see themselves facing any kind of disadvantage or oppression.

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When Bruce Lee first started acting and began filming his character Kato in “The Green Hornet,” a producer had mistaken him as a chauffeur simply because of his race and was asked to pick up a cast member. Displays of racial prejudice were more prevalent in his time, and he was asked by someone else if he was bothered by it. Bruce replied, “If I let it bother me, I wouldn’t be Bruce Lee.” He didn’t let the circumstances he faced define who he was. He focused on improving himself, following his own expectations instead of other’s expectations of him.











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