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Bruce Lee & The Audacity of Confidence

Bao Nguyen, director of the essential Bruce Lee documentary, Be Water, zooms with Sung and David to talk about the audacity of confidence for Asian-American men.

The Confidence Game

Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive
Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive

We’re constantly given the advice that confidence is all we need to succeed. The likes of Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, and Muhammad Ali are classic personifications of confidence by which we strive to emulate in the West. Present-day benchmarks include Barack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, and Connor McGregor. These are men who speak with authority, certitude, and conviction. We trust these guys because they exude fearlessness and fortitude – an audacity of confidence.

Sung and David recently zoomed with Bao Nguyen, director of Be Water, the essential Bruce Lee documentary currently available on ESPN+ 30 for 30 series. When it comes to confidence, there was no greater paragon than The Dragon himself.


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Be Water

Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive
Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee voyaged from Hong Kong to America in 1959 with a mere $100 in his pocket. America had no role models of Asian descent for Bruce to look up to. No movie stars, no athletes, no icons looked like Bruce. As an immigrant who was expected to behave in a subservient manner, Bruce Lee was forced to challenge American perceptions of Asian-American men.

Be Water is not your typical Bruce Lee documentary. From beginning to end there is no visual juxtaposition between past and present. Director Bao Nguyen transports we his audience through a time portal into Bruce Lee’s world – his time and his place. Through the magic of beautifully restored archival footage Be Water is the most immersive and emotional biography of Bruce Lee’s life to date.

The Man Who Lived

Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive
Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive

Firsthand testimonies from those who knew Bruce personally reveal a man whose mythology overshadowed his vulnerabilities. Onscreen, Bruce radiated charisma, talent, and spectacle. But at his core, Bruce was a philosopher, a visionary, a sage. He was a teacher, a friend, and a father. He also may have been a bit of a hot-headed punk and arrogant asshole. Bruce was a human being.

As Bao pored over Lee’s journals, writings, and photos, he had a tactile experience with the artifacts. “This was a man who lived,” says Bao. For those of us who idolize Bruce Lee for whatever reason it may be, we tend to forget the frailty of his humanity that lies in the shadow of his symbol.

“Bruce is not just Asian representation,” Bao says. “Bruce is masculinity. When we talk about masculinity we don’t talk about vulnerability.”

An Immigrant’s Tale

Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive
Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bao was able to personally relate to Bruce Lee’s immigration story. “My parents were refugees,” Bao recalls. “They left Vietnam and lived in a Hong Kong refugee camp for six months.”

The widely accepted view of Bruce Lee is that in order for him to become a global superstar and immortal icon he had to transcend his Asian-American identity. This is a false narrative. Bruce had to battle the ugliness of stereotyping and racism that stemmed from centuries of how the West viewed “Orientals.”

Sung commented on the now infamous scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where Bruce Lee is portrayed in a backlot fight with Brad Pitt’s character. “We are laughing at the audacity of an Asian-American man to exude such confidence,” says Sung. “You don’t even allow us to be confident!”

Embrace Your Independent Spirit

Bruce in portrait, in sweater shirt, looking into camera.
Courtesy of ESPN/Bruce Lee Family Archive

Ultimately, Be Water is a story about a man with a rare and inspiring independent spirit. When The Green Hornet was cancelled, Bruce auditioned for years in Hollywood to little fanfare. Only when he decided to create his own roles with his own screenplays starring himself as leading man did he finally find stardom. But he had to go to Hong Kong to get his movies made.

Lesson? You can knock on the door all day long, but at the end of the day it’s not you who controls the door. If you truly possess an audacity of confidence, then maybe it’s time for you to build your own house.

“Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it.”

– Linda Lee Cadwell

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