Review by Sean Boelman
The latest entry in ESPN’s sports history docuseries 30 for 30, Bao Nguyen’s documentary Be Water chronicles the life of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. A conventional biography in many ways, but one that will still be important for fans and general audiences alike, this may be one of the most emotional documentaries of the year so far.
The film takes a look at the legendary life of martial artist and actor Bruce Lee as he struggles to be accepted as an Asian-American in an industry that, at the time, offered few opportunities for people of color. Because of the ESPN connection, one would expect this movie to lean heavily into the martial arts aspects of the story, but the focus here is rather on the social aspects of the story.
Of course, the film takes some time to explore how Lee introduced a then-foreign form of martial arts to the United States, bringing a part of his culture to the world in a beautiful way. Nguyen realizes that most people will already be familiar with this story, though, so he only hits upon the important elements, spending much of his time elsewhere.
Those moments in the movie that are most emotional are the archive footage featuring Lee as he discusses his career and attempts to make his big break. Lee is obviously now remembered as a beloved figure despite his tragically small filmography, so it’s hard to think of him having ever struggled to make it in the first place. Even more heartbreaking, though, is that people of color are still facing similar issues in Hollywood today.
In this time in which diversity is the buzzword in the industry today, people can learn a lot from Lee’s story. It is by no means easy for a person of color to make it in Hollywood, or any high-profile industry for that matter. Even one of the most respected action stars of all time had difficulty gaining recognition at first. Until that necessary change can be made, it is our job to learn from minority trailblazers such as Lee how to lift each other up.
Nguyen also effectively incorporates interviews with various people who were close to Lee while he was alive. From his family members to his co-stars, plenty of well-known figures share their story of how Lee impacted them and their lives personally, culminating in what has to be one of the most exceptional end-credits sequences ever committed to the screen.
Inarguably the most impressive part of Nguyen’s style is his brilliant use of archive footage. Although the other narrative techniques like interviews or Lee’s writings read by his daughter all play their own part in the film, it is the footage of Lee himself that will speak to audiences the most. On top of the nostalgia it will undoubtedly cause to resurface, his wisdom is simply beyond inspiring.
Be Water is exactly the biography that fans want and need of Bruce Lee. Sure to leave audiences of all backgrounds without a dry eye, this documentary is both fascinating and meaningful.
Be Water airs on ESPN on June 7 at 9pm ET and will be available on ESPN+ following its debut.