The Black Men Who Trained Bruce Lee for the Biggest Fight of His Life
The ESPN 30 for 30 doc “Be Water,” on the life of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, will air June 7. Director Bao Nguyen writes about how Lee prepared to fight anti-black racism.
Be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. — Bruce Lee
The philosophy of being water first originated from Bruce Lee’s teenage training as a martial artist. His teacher, the equally iconic Yip Man, saw how a young, undisciplined Lee would bubble up in anger and become frustrated. Yip Man taught him the importance of detachment and to calm his mind, accept the spontaneity of the universe, and essentially to be like water. When Bruce first uttered these now iconic words, I don’t think he imagined them becoming a battle cry for protesters fighting for equality and democracy all around the world.
For the past year, courageous Hong Kong protesters have invoked Bruce’s emblematic words as an organizing principle in their struggle for democracy in a deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. They have learned to be agile and continually fluid, quickly changing their tactics and positions when the police force has become overwhelming in one particular area. They have used the umbrella, first to hide their faces from CCTV, then shield against pepper spray. Essentially, they adapt to given circumstances.
Over the past few weeks in the United States during the protests for racial justice, many of these same tactics have been utilized here by protesters, including an emphasis on mobility to confuse police forces on their movements and the use of umbrellas as protection against pepper spray. Although Bruce may have been surprised that his words would be utilized as an organizational tactic for demonstrations in Hong Kong and the United States, he would have been less surprised by the exchange of ideas and principles between the two groups of protesters—divided by a vast ocean but united on the same side of justice and equity.
Bruce Lee is widely known as a teacher—a teacher of philosophy, a teacher of martial arts—but he was very much a student, especially when it came to his African-American friends. This would inform his attitudes toward race in America and influence his desire to break barriers and systems of oppression through his films.
When Bruce arrived in the United States at the age of 18, he soon settled in Seattle after a short stint in San Francisco. There he met Jesse Glover, who would become his first student and one of his closest friends during his early years in America. Jesse was a young African-American man who began studying martial arts after being a victim of police brutality. As much as Bruce taught Jesse his Chinese culture through martial arts, Jesse’s experience in America was very much an eye-opening education to Bruce about the systemic racism, especially against African-Americans, that was still deeply rooted in America. This relationship would inform how Bruce viewed race, and was one of the reasons he had a very open mind toward teaching non-Chinese people martial arts, which some say was taboo in the mostly Chinese martial arts community in the U.S. at the time.
Later in Bruce’s life, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would become one of his most famous students—but Bruce again learned as much from Kareem as he taught him. After their training sessions, Kareem and Bruce would go to Bruce’s study where Kareem would teach Bruce about the civil rights and black liberation movements. From his relationships with Jesse and Kareem, he came to learn a lot about America, which would influence the type of films and roles Bruce would take on in the future. This continual exchange of ideas, allyship to your neighbor, and the belief in integrity of character rather than the color of one’s skin carried on in Bruce’s life until his tragic death in 1973.
Even though Bruce Lee passed away nearly 50 years ago, his words continue to inspire action against oppression and injustice, because words must be followed by action. Right now, the protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for their way of life and black protesters in America are literally fighting for their lives—many having adapted Bruce’s ethos in their movement. As he said, “water can flow or it can crash,” and at this moment, our country seems to be crashing against a system and way of thinking that has for too long treated African-Americans as less than human—denying them justice, equity, and tragically, many times their own lives, like in the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others.
America has constantly had to flow past these moments of racial injustice just to encounter them time and time again. It is up to us, all of us together, to find a way to not just flow through these tragedies but finally break the systems that allow them so they never happen again.