Explained: Why the feud between Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Lee's family has resurfaced

In a recent guest column, Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon Lee urged Quentin Tarantino to refrain from marring the legacy of the late Chinese American actor, adding that at a time when Asian-American hate is on the rise his comments 'are not welcome.'

FP Staff July 05, 2021 12:49:57 IST
Explained: Why the feud between Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Lee's family has resurfaced

Brad Pitt (Cliff Booth) and Mike Moh (Bruce Lee) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Twitter @IndieWire

Following the release of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the actor was caught in multiple controversies — for the depiction of Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee, and the Manson family. The filmmaker's callous treatment of female characters was a cause of backlash too.

The film, starring Brad Pitt and Leonard DiCaprio, a revisionist take on real life-events evoked nostalgia and paid homage to final moments in "the golden age of Hollywood." Once Upon a Time in Hollywood earned a total of $374.6 million at the box office. It also went on to get nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture, and a Best Supporting Actor win for Pitt.

The controversy around Lee's portrayal in the film has once again ignited for marring the Chinese American martial artist and actor. Mike Moh played Lee as an arrogant, pompous person, whose actions were the source of comedic relief in the Tarantino directorial.

Here is a timeline of the events: 

Shannon Lee expresses disappointment after trailer release 

  • In June, 2019 after the trailer of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood released, Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon Lee expressed disappointment over director Tarantino not consulting her for the film.
  • In an interview with Deadline, Shannon revealed that she was "not included in any kind of way" before using Bruce Lee in the film. "If they contacted me, I could be completely unreasonable and a pain in the ass and make all kinds of ridiculous demands — but they don’t know that I’m not going to do that. ...when I know that he reached out to other people but did not reach out to me, there’s a level of annoyance," she said.

Bruce's protégé addresses fight scene featuring Brad Pitt and Mike Moh


  • In July, Bruce's protégé Dan Inosanto, referred to a sequence in the film where Tarantino's version of Bruce Lee boasts of "crippling" Cassius Clay, as Mohammad Ali was known in the 1960s.
  • Pitt's character, an ageing stuntman named Cliff Booth, scoffs at this claim, and calls him "a little man with a big mouth and a big chip," who "should be embarrassed to suggest" that he can take down Clay. They then engage in a one-on-one fight ending with Bruce's defeat and Booth's firing from the set.
  • Inosanto told Variety about Bruce's humble disposition, and said the late action star would have never said anything derogatory about Ali as shown in the film.

Film critic Walter Chaw, among the many, who say Bruce Lee's portrayal has racist undertones

  • The same month, film critic Walter Chaw wrote a Twitter thread commenting on this issue. "If it's a 'white boy fantasy' that a white guy could best Bruce Lee, it's the same kind of fantasy that would posit Lee as the ultimate test of fighting ability for a fictional white guy. Your racism is either bigoted or paternalistic," he said.
  • Chaw also wrote an essay, "Why Are You Laughing at Bruce Lee?" for Vulturewhere he elaborated on how the laughs that elicited due to Moh's enactment of Bruce onscreen was similar to the racist attitude that he, as a Chinese American, was subjected to in childhood.

Tarantino defends portrayal

  • In August, at a press conference in Moscow, Tarantino defended the portrayal. "Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy," "The way he was talking, I didn't just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that to that effect. If people are saying, Well, he never said he could beat up Muhammad 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," he added.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood release in China put on hold

  • It was reported the China release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was stalled after Shannon filed a complaint to the country's National Film Administration.

Matthew Polly, Bruce's biographer, sheds light on the actor's temperament 

  • Bruce's biographer Matthew Polly in June, 2021 told Esquire that the actor "revered" Ali. He also said that there were several missteps in the characterisation of the actor. Polly explained that Bruce always treated all cast and crew members on every project he was a part of with equal respect.
  • "In this scene (between Pitt and Moh), Bruce Lee is essentially calling out a stuntman and getting him fired because he’s the big star. And that’s just not who Bruce Lee was as a person," said Polly.

Tarantino releases book based on film and appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast

  • Tarantino released a book based on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that does not paint a flattering picture of Lee either. Screen Rant writes that in the novel's chapter that focuses on the fight between Booth and Lee, the latter is written as an even more arrogant version of his film self, and as someone who looks down upon stuntmen.
  • During a recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Tarantino once again defended his interpretation of Bruce Lee, saying while he understands Shannon Lee's previous criticism, he does not care about others.
  • In his interview with Rogan, Tarantino also claimed that Bruce Lee had “nothing but disrespect for stuntmen." “He was always hitting them with his feet, he was always tagging — it’s called tagging when you hit a stuntman for real,” said the director.

Watch the interview here:

Shannon Lee calls out Tarantino and "white Hollywood" for skewed representation of Bruce Lee

  • Following his remarks, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, Shannon Lee urged Tarantino to "take a pass on commenting further" about her father, and expressed frustration with "white men in Hollywood trying to tell me who Bruce Lee was."
  • "I'm tired of hearing from white men in Hollywood that he was arrogant and an a*****. When they have no idea and cannot fathom what it might have taken to get work in 1960s and '70s Hollywood as a Chinese man with (God forbid) an accent, or to try to express an opinion on a set as a perceived foreigner and person of colour.
  • She also noted that at a time when the Asian American community regularly faces discrimination and prejudice, the director's remarks "are not welcome."

Updated Date:

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