It’s not exactly a surprise that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was going to piss off someone. After all, Quentin Tarantino has that effect on people. But if the pre-production chatter was any indication, I figured the most pissed off would be Sharon Tate’s sister Debra Tate. As it turns out, Debra loved Margot Robbie’s portrayal of her late sister. But that’s not to say the movie has been scandal-free. Roman Polanski’s wife was mad that he’s a character in the film. Now we’re hearing from the late Bruce Lee’s daughter, and she’s also not happy about what she saw on screen.
OUATIH features a scene in which Brad Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth squares off against Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh). Many questioned how it’s possible for in-his-prime Bruce Lee to be taken down by an aging stuntman.
— Olivia Truffaut-Wong (@iWatchiAm) March 20, 2019
What Brad Pitt v Bruce Lee would really look like pic.twitter.com/wkYXZw0oHo
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) March 20, 2019
One such person who wasn’t feeling it was Bruce’s daughter, Shannon Lee. Shannon had feelings about Quentin putting her father in the movie from the get go. In a Facebook post from March (Shannon runs the social media accounts pertaining to her late father), she says that Quentin never consulted their family, but hopes he portrays her father with respect.
According to Shannon, her wish wasn’t granted, and she really hates the way Quentin did her dad on screen. Shannon spoke to The Wrap after seeing the film, and she describes Bruce’s character in OUATIH as an “arrogant asshole who was full of hot air.” In Bruce and Cliff’s scene (spoiler alert), they trade snarky jabs at each other on set until the two agree to a best two-out-of-three fight. Bruce wins the first, Cliff wins the second by slamming Bruce into a car (they never get to the third fight). What was meant to be a scene showing that Cliff’s still got it came across as shitty and problematic, according to Shannon.
“I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie. I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen…and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion. I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”
Shannon adds that maybe it was Quentin’s way of addressing how Bruce Lee was stereotyped by Hollywood, but that it doesn’t come across that way. She also doesn’t love how Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee was a bit of a jerk.
“[He doesn’t come across] as someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others…What I’m interested in is raising the consciousness of who Bruce Lee was as a human being and how he lived his life. All of that was flushed down the toilet in this portrayal, and made my father into this arrogant punching bag.”
She says it was very uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laughing at her dad. Shannon adds that she knows many of the characters are caricatures of their real selves, but wonders why Quentin had to really go hard on Bruce Lee while letting Damian Lewis play Steve McQueen as straight as he did. The Wrap also spoke to Bruce lee expert Matthew Polly, who says Bruce Lee was a bit cocky and braggy, but that his characterization in OUATIH bordered on an SNL sketch. Matthew also believes Quentin’s jokey, cocky portrayal of Bruce Lee is a little problematic, considering he was so sympathetic to the white characters of Steve McQueen, Sharon Tate, and Jay Sebring. Mike Moh is one of only a small handful of non-white actors in the film.
Quentin Tarantino hasn’t commented on any of this. But if and when he does, I’m sure his response will be gracious and diplomatic and definitely won’t be drenched in pure smugness. He’s definitely not currently working on an Enter the Dragon pun about how he’d love it if Shannon didn’t drag on and on about this.
Here are some pictures from the UK premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.