Why is the Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood controversial?

Here's what Tarantino and Bruce Lee's family have said about the segment

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A scene in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood featuring martial arts legend Bruce Lee has caused quite a stir in the weeks following the film’s US release (19th July).

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Set in 1960s Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino’s film features a host of real-life characters from that era of filmmaking, including Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie), Roman Polanski (Rafael Zawierucha) and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis).

Though Lee doesn’t feature as part of the main storyline, he does appear (played by Mike Moh) in a controversial flashback, which sees him fight Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth on a film set after the latter had laughed at the former’s assertions that he could beat up Muhammad Ali.

A lot has been said about the scene, with Pitt, Tarantino and Lee’s daughter Shannon all chiming in. Find out why below.

What happens in the Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood?

Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Columbia Pictures

Bruce Lee appears a couple of times in the film, only in flashback. In one scene, he trains Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate for a fight scene in The Wrecking Crew (the film she goes to the cinema to watch herself in).

But the scene that everyone is talking about features earlier on in the film.

It is framed as Booth’s memory, as he considers his last day of work as a stuntman. We see Lee conversing with a group of people, talking up his own technical abilities. Booth is listening in, and aggravates Lee off by laughing when Lee says he could beat up Muhammad Ali.

Lee then challenges Booth to a three-round bout, in which they attempt to knock one another to the floor. Lee takes his opponent down with a kick, and then Booth grabs him and throws him viciously against a nearby car, which leaves a massive dent. They then trade blows – with the fight seemingly tipping in Booth’s favour until they are stopped by the film’s director.

The stuntman is then fired from the film for fighting its star. It is worth noting that Booth is meant to be nearly twice Lee’s age at the time, too…

Why is the scene controversial?

Shannon Lee, the daughter of the late star, and Lee’s former training partner Dan Inosanto both said they are unhappy with how Lee was portrayed in the film, saying he comes across as a “caricature” and that he “comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air”.

“I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways, which my father certainly did,” Shannon said (via Variety). “But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true.”

Bruce Lee with fresh scratch marks on his face and chest in a scene from the film 'Enter The Dragon', 1973. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Bruce Lee with fresh scratch marks on his face and chest in a scene from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, 1973. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Inosanto also suggested that the depiction was not accurate. ““Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on,” he insisted “In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts.”

Shannon Lee also accused Tarantino of treating her father the way “white Hollywood” treated him throughout his career.

“He was continuously marginalised and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood, which is how he’s treated in the film by Quentin Tarantino,” she said. “I hope people will take the opportunity to find out more about Bruce Lee because there’s a lot more to find out and a lot more to get excited about. This portrayal in this film is definitely not that.”

What have the film’s cast and crew said?

Quentin Tarantino broke his silence on the controversy in August, defending his depiction of Lee.

“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” he told press in Moscow while publicising the film. “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. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.”

Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt on the set of ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. (woman in shot: ELISE NYGAARD OLSON)
Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt on the set of ONce Upon A Time In Hollywood

Tarantino also suggested that, as Booth is a fictional character, whether Booth can beat Bruce Lee up or not is up to him.

“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” he said. “If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up.

“The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand-to-hand combat. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person.”

He concluded: “If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”

A couple of weeks after the film was released, Robert Alonzo, one of the film’s stunt coordinators, said that the script initially had Booth winning the fight, but that Pitt had been “very much against” it.

“I know that Brad had expressed his concerns, and we all had concerns about Bruce losing. Especially for me, as someone who has looked up to Bruce Lee as an icon, not only in the martial-arts realm, but in the way he approached philosophy and life, to see your idol be beaten is very disheartening,” Alonzo told the Huffington Post.

Alonzo added: “Everyone involved was like, ‘How is this going to go over?’ Brad was very much against it. He was like, ‘It’s Bruce Lee, man!’”

Most recently, Shannon Lee suggested that Tarantino should “shut up” or apologise. “He could shut up about it,” she told Variety. “That would be really nice. Or he could apologise or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.’”

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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out NOW