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Bruce Lee Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt and Mike Moh in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Bruce Lee’s daughter is still disappointed in Tarantino’s portrayal of him

Shannon Lee says the director’s 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, treated her father ‘the way white Hollywood’ treated him when he was alive

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was released in 2019 to a chorus of both acclaim and dissent. Among its strongest critics were the relatives of those depicted in it, including Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee.

Following the film’s release last year, Shannon criticised the portrayal of her father as an arrogant man who claimed he could “cripple” boxer Muhammad Ali. Speaking at a press junket, Tarantino stood by his depiction, asserting that Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy”, adding: “The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography.”

Responding in 2019, Shannon said Tarantino could rectify the controversy surrounding the portrayal by “shut(ting) up about it”. She added: “Or he could apologise, or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote about it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was’.”

Now, in a new interview, Shannon reveals that Tarantino never reached out to her about her criticisms, and that she still feels the same way she did a year ago. “I was very disappointed. I’m not going to say I wasn’t angry at all, but certainly sitting in the movie theatre and having that experience with an audience was not a fun experience for me.”

Speaking to the South China Morning Post about her upcoming book, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, Shannon said it was “irresponsible” of Tarantino “to do what he did and have that portrayal”. She also claimed the filmmaker “incorrectly” cited her mother’s book.

“There were so many other ways he could have treated the Bruce Lee character that would have got the same plot point across,” Shannon continued, “without having to essentially treat Bruce Lee the way white Hollywood treated my father when he was alive.”

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Lee’s character – played by Mike Moh – challenges stunt double Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt) to a fight on the set of the TV show they’re filming. Shannon says this depiction has created a lasting negative impression of her father in the minds of a new generation.

“It’s unfortunate because it has started this narrative in some places where some people are saying, ‘Oh, Bruce Lee was an asshole’. Look, everybody can be an asshold sometimes,” Shannon said. “I can be arrogant and angry in my life – is that something I would say I am like generally? No, my father was not generally like that. He was extremely passionate and driven. He could have a temper sometimes, but he did not go around challenging people to fights. I think when people are confident and driven, people see that as aggressive in some way.”

She added: “My father worked extremely hard and directly towards the idea of authentic representation in Hollywood for an Asian man, so I don’t think he would have gone around beating up stunt people as a way of furthering his cause. As a person of colour in the 1960s and 70s to achieve what he did, he had to be doing something right. He had to have extreme confidence and work 10 times harder than a lot of people, so it’s a lot to throw that all out by this silly portrayal.”

Shannon isn’t the only person to take umbrage with her relative being interpreted in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Debra Tate, the sister of Sharon Tate – whose murder is at the heart of the film – previously described movies about her killing as “tasteless”, adding: “It’s classless how everyone is rushing to release something for the 50th anniversary of this horrific event.” 

Watch Shannon Lee’s full interview above.