This past weekend during another of his now common Twitterstorms Kanye West praised Will Ferrell for his acting, his genius, and, specifically, for his performance in Zoolander 2. Kanye said Will Ferrell had achieved “Bruce Lee status.”
What does that mean exactly? What is “Bruce Lee status?” Is it just shorthand for GOAT? Kind of. Does it mean Will Ferrell kicks all kinds of metaphoric ass? Yeah, sure, but that’s not really Kanye’s point. When he said “Bruce Lee status,” Kanye wanted to make it clear that Will Ferrell’s playing on the highest level. He’s free of the maddening horde of imitators and haters. He’s up there in the pantheon of icons.
But why does Bruce Lee represent the highest heights one can reach? Why not say Will Ferrell was on Michael Jackson status? Or Michael Jordan status? Or Tupac status? Why Bruce Lee?
It’s actually quite simple. Bruce Lee is freedom personified and honestly expressed. He’s unequaled excellence. He’s that badass who cannot be denied. You see why Kanye would revere him. And those are the same reasons why, for Black America, Bruce Lee is, was, and will always be one of the greatest icons of black liberation. Yes. Bruce Lee.
Consider it this way. Never before and ever since have we seen a better embodiment of Malcolm X’s adage “By any means necessary” than in the life and body of Bruce Lee. The dude invented his own form of martial arts whose whole goal was the “style of no style.” He lived by Malcolm’s words. Bruce Lee used whatever he found necessary to accomplish his goal of kicking all kinds of ass.
And, just like Malcolm X, for the black youth of the 1970s, Bruce Lee was a radical champion of the people, even if he wasn’t black. To put it quite simply: Bruce Lee could kick Whitey’s ass. That was kind of big deal for black kids in the seventies who were born in the sixties and lived through the Summers of Riots when cities burned from sea-to-shining-sea. America was not a well place when Bruce Lee became a star.
Bruce Lee’s ass-kicking was a beautiful violent symphony of focused anger. Each blow was like an act of retribution against an unfair world. His fists of fury provided a forum for the fantasies of disaffected urban youth. To them, Lee was just like that other bigger-than-life radical badass, the bigmouthed, boastful iconoclast of violence, Muhammad Ali. To young black kids, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee all spoke to their dreams of justice.
But that’s not all. Bruce Lee’s influence will surprise you. Like, did you know he was also a central inspiration for the creation of breakdancing? Drop that fun fact in a conversation sometime. Watch the puzzled faces. People may not believe you when you say Bruce Lee, Hong Kong’s Cha Cha champion of 1958, directly influenced the birth of breakdancing. You’ll need some facts. But it’s true, so here they are.
In the Bronx, back in the 1960s, when street gangs like the Savage Skulls and Black Spades battled, they rarely used guns. They mostly fought with fists, bats, chains and knives. Obviously, it was still a bloody affair. But in the seventies, once those same Bronx street gangs saw Bruce Lee kick all kinds of ass without a weapon, after they saw the monks of Shaolin roll up in a crew and battle, they filed out of those inner city theaters and invented a new style of street combat. The early b-boys from groups like the Rock Steady Crew started to “uprock.” It’s a battle dance. Rather than stab each other, the gang leaders would meet. Inspired by the one-on-one showdowns of Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu masters, they’d square off for a dance battle. Uprocking morphed into breakdancing. What started in the Bronx spread all over New York, America, and then the world.
In a very direct way Bruce Lee’s cinematic violence inspired Bronx youth to shed their violent ways. He made them want to express their anger through artwork. That’s kind of crazy. But those are the often-unseen connections that truly shape our world. Bruce Lee and the birth of breakdancing.
“Bruce Lee to me [is a] minor prophet. In the Koran it teaches us…it says we have major prophets, we have minor prophets; so Abraham, Moses and Jesus would be major. But then you have minor prophets that only live for small periods of time and inspire people in their own small ways. I feel Bruce Lee was like that.” —RZA doing press for The Man With The Iron Fists
The more you know about Bruce Lee the easier it is to see. He was not only an icon of black liberation, he was an integral one. But since most folks won’t just take RZA’s word for it, since they may be initially skeptical of such claims, you may need several reasons why Bruce Lee is such an important icon in black history. So, let’s continue.
Did you know Bruce Lee learned to see America through the eyes of a black man?
He was born Nov. 27, 1940, and he was raised in Hong Kong. Lee was the son of an opera star father and half-Chinese/half-German mother. Because of his mixed parentage Lee struggled for acceptance. He was treated as a lesser-than, an outcast in his home country. It didn’t help that he had a very short temper. He spent his early years scraping and trading blows in street fights. He eventually trained with the legendary Wing Chun martial artist Yip Man.
However, he still got in trouble, and so, at 18, urged by the local police, Lee packed up and left Hong Kong. He set off for America to go live with extended family. He eventually settled in Seattle, enrolled as a student at University of Washington and opened his own Kung Fu school. After an exhibition he put on at the university, a student approached and asked if he could study with him. He was a young black man named Jesse Glover.
“The individual is more important than any style or system.”—Bruce Lee
Glover struck a bargain with Lee. If the Hong Kong-born Kung Fu teacher would instruct him in the ways of the Wing Chun fighting style, Glover, an American-born black man, would teach Lee how to thrive and survive in America. Someone had to. Glover offered to teach Lee about American culture, to read the streets, to deal with people and their racism, as well as other important things, like, when to say man or baby. This early influence on Lee cannot be overstated. It’s quite likely that black audiences somehow could sense it; they saw that Bruce Lee understood the world the way they did. He reacted the way they would. If they could.
For young urban African-Americans in theaters from Newark to Detroit, down in St. Louis, or out in Oakland, when they saw Bruce Lee up on the big screen, here was a man of color who possessed undeniable dignity. Here was a man of color who would not bend and would not break. Bruce Lee would rather die on his feet than live on his knee. This alone made Bruce Lee a radical character in their eyes. But, also for those black youth, it was equally important that Bruce Lee had swagger. In the documentary I Am Bruce Lee, film director/producer Reginald Hudlin explained the depth of meaning for young black kids who watched wide-eyed as Bruce Lee ripped the chest hair off Chuck Norris.
“Bruce Lee is fighting a ‘real American,’ you know? He’s strawberry blonde, he’s got hair all over his body—in fact, he uses that hair against him. So, when he fought Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee represented the entire Third World. He represented all people of color fighting the Western oppressor. I can tell you at the Fox Theater in St Louis that was 100 percent all black, we cheered for him. Maybe some of us were more politically aware than others, but everyone got the joke. That time when Bruce Lee was on the rise—we were looking for counter-culture heroes to fight the establishment. You had Muhammad Ali. You had Malcolm X. You had the Black Panthers. You had a lot of radicalism going on. Bruce Lee represented that same kind of radicalism.”
When you mention “race relations in America,” most folks immediately think of white-black tensions. But what about black-Asian encounters? Well, we tend to overlook those interactions in our analysis of America. Which may be why we tend to miss the feelings of solidarity that Bruce Lee created between Asians and black Americans.
Back in the early seventies, thanks to international-minded speeches by MLK and Malcolm X, as well as from the Black Panthers, most black youth had a very different view of world events than what the newspapers printed. For instance: Vietnam. Keep in mind that around that same time young black Americans heard Muhammad Ali tell reporters that “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”
Global thinking like this may be why black urban youth could hold a perspective more worldly than the Hollywood producers who were slow to invest in Bruce Lee. It’s also why young black audiences were quick to invest in the Asian hero, to identify with him even though he didn’t look like them. He still spoke to them and their dreams. Like, when Bruce Lee kicked Whitey’s ass.
When Lee was casting for the villain of his third film, Way of the Dragon, he asked the reigning world karate champion to play the bad guy. Here’s how Chuck Norris recalls that conversation going down:
“He said, ‘I want to do a movie, now, in Rome, in the Colosseum, in a fight just like two gladiators. And I want you to be my opponent.’ So I said, kiddingly, I said, ‘Bruce, who wins this fight?’ He said, ‘I win! I am the star of this movie!’ (laughs) So I said, ‘Oh, I see. You want to beat the world champion. Because I still held the world title. He said, ‘No, I want to kill the world champion.’ (laughs)”
When Bruce Lee kills Chuck Norris at the end of their gladiator battle, Bruce Lee beat The Man. He beat the European colonizers. He beat racist white domination. To young black fans, Bruce Lee was a freedom fighter striking back at the racist system that crushed people of color around the world. He was the champion of the oppressed, regardless of ethnicity.
“You know to this day the biggest reaction I’ve ever seen any actor get from an audience was at a Bruce Lee movie. I’ve been in a movie theater when the audience was making so much noise they turned the movie off and the manager came out and said, ‘Listen we can’t watch the movie unless y’all…’ But it’s like they just go nuts for a Bruce Lee movie.”
That is from one of the most famous black actors of all time. Still impressed by his memories of the mesmerizing hold a martial artist had on a theater filled with young black people, this same world-famous black celebrity once said his entire career has been shaped by Bruce Lee.
“The only actor I’ve ever consciously mimicked onscreen is Bruce Lee.” He later added, “To this day, if I pull a gun out, I’m doing Bruce Lee. Because I look nothing like him… you can’t see it. But when I go… and I’m doing all my stuff with my eyes… it’s all Bruce Lee.”
Who is that world famous black actor?
“If you try to remember, you will lose. Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless. Like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or creep, or drip, or crash. Be water, my friend.”—Bruce Lee
As Eddie Murphy saw, it wasn’t just Bruce Lee’s violence that was mesmerizing. It was the fact Bruce Lee had soul. Like, James Brown he had soul power. Yet, Lee was also quick to laugh. He was arrogant but without being an asshole. He was sure of himself in the best ways possible. Plus, he was a man of color who could lay down Asian wisdom to school a white dude.
In 1971, back when he was still guest-starring on short-lived TV shows like Longstreet, Lee had a bit part on the blind investigator programs. It was written by one of his Kung Fu students, Stirling Silliphant. The screenwriter quoted Lee’s philosophy about “be like water” verbatim for a speech. He had Lee perform it on the show. But watch the video, check the second half, Bruce Lee tells the blond-haired white male star of the show he needs to imagine his own demise.
“Like everybody else you want to learn the way to win. But never to accept the way to lose. To accept defeat, to learn to die is to be liberated from it. So when tomorrow comes you must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying.”
This was in Nixon’s America. For an Asian dude to tell a white man he needed to learn to die was still a shocking thing to see. At that time, America was losing a war in Vietnam. And here was an Asian man, on national television no less, warning white America that blind ambition doomed them to failure. For young black people watching Bruce Lee tell his white boss that he needed to learn how to die—well, just imagine how that was for them to see. No one talked to white men like that. No one told Whitey to his face he needed to learn to die. That’s a radical act for television.
My nomination for the greatest blaxploitation hero of all time starred in The Chinese Connection.—Darius James, That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss ’Tude
In the summer of 1973, on July 26th, Enter the Dragon premiered in Hollywood. The martial arts blockbuster was an instant monster hit. It stayed the No. 1 movie in America for four weeks in a row. But the star would never get to see his greatest success. Bruce Lee died six days earlier on July 20, 1973. His sudden surprising death was ruled a fatal interaction with a headache medicine that resulted in swelling of the brain. There were rumors of a family curse as well as other mysteries surrounding his passing, and Lee quickly ascended to become a sort of secular saint—the eternal champion of the people.
“In memory of a once fluid man crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” —Bruce Lee’s tombstone, which he designed
His greatest film, Enter the Dragon, enshrined Lee’s legacy and teachings in film history. After decades of standing up for himself, including even during the making of the movie, Lee was able to do what mattered most to him: “Honestly express himself.” This is the same goal that Frederick Douglass had. The same one that Nina Simone had. It’s what motivated Tupac. And in less political and more personal terms, it’s also the goal of RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan.
To this day, you can spot how Bruce Lee influences in the badassery of Michael Jai White. You see how his style informs the cartoon Afro Samurai and films like Jim Jarmusch’s indie classic Ghost Dog. There’s no doubt that Bruce Lee also inspired that most famous attendee of urban blaxploitation/Kung Fu film double features, Quentin Tarantino.
In Kill Bill, when the Bride is wearing that yellow tracksuit, it’s a direct visual quote of Bruce Lee’s tracksuit from Game of Death.
Doesn’t matter if it’s an imaginary character of Quentin Tarantino, or if we’re talking about a real live black man like the RZA or R&B singer SisQó, for millions of people, when they think about being a badass, they think of Bruce Lee. He is now a symbol of self-determination. Which is also why, for millions of black people, Bruce Lee was and remains an icon of liberation.