Fight the Power:  Bruce Lee as hero of the downtrodden

Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee, the Chinese martial arts megastar who died in 1973, has attained a kind of global cultural-icon status, on par with, say, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley, Che Guevara and Al Pacino's Scarface. Images of a ripped shirtless Lee, hands ready to attack , glaring with a warrior's focus and a streak of blood across his chest, are about as pervasive as any in pop culture. Lee was a mold-breaking sex symbol, a philosophical ass-kicker, and a hero to the oppressed, as the new documentary I Am Bruce Lee makes clear. (The film premieres Feb. 15 at 10 theaters in the state, including locations in Hartford, Manchester, New Haven, Milford, Norwalk, Stamford and Danbury.)

With dozens of mostly adoring talking-heads including former colleagues, his daughter, his wife, friends, boxers, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, musicians, dancers, actors and historians, the film tells the story of Lee's career, his round-about route to success in Hollywood, his demise and his legacy, using lots of rapid-fire jabs-to-the-eye edits and cuts borrowed from the martial arts movies that Lee popularized.

The filmmakers are eager to give credit to Lee for launching a number of trends and for pioneering several firsts. Some time seems wasted in exploring whether Lee, who weighed around 135 pounds, could have beaten much heavier fighters. Was he a fighter or an entertainer? (Both, seems to be the correct answer.) Whether Lee was the "father of mixed martial arts" is a debate that consumes more time than seems necessary, while Lee's battles against Asian stereotypes in Hollywood films, his role as the first (and possibly only) Asian male romantic lead in American movies could probably handle a separate film. "He put balls on Chinese men," is a claim his niece says she hears frequently.

When he attended college in Seattle in the early '60s, Lee was initially more interested in popularizing martial arts as a teacher than in entering the film industry. In fact, Lee, the son of a Cantonese actor, had been one of the biggest child stars in Hong Kong. Snippets of his early screen tests in Hollywood capture his intense physical presence, charisma, blurring punches, and good looks. And if a hundred years from now people end up turning the worship of Bruce Lee into some kind of pop religion, I Am Bruce Lee will help explain why. Lee's rise to stardom and his struggles have all the elements of myth and parable. (His death is still a subject of mystery to many.)

A legendary show-down involving the elders of San Francisco's Chinese community making Lee fight for the right to teach non-Chinese sounds like something straight from a movie. And the fact that Lee thought up the idea for the influential TV show "Kung Fu," and was its intended star, but for Hollywood racism, will be a depressing revelation to some. Particularly interesting are the connections between Bruce Lee's eclectic style of martial arts and other things like fencing, boxing (he was a student of the sport), and dancing (Lee was a 1957 Hong Kong cha-cha champion).

Lee had huge ambition and drive — both to break down barriers for Asians in Hollywood, and also to achieve global stardom and make millions of dollars. (Enter the Dragon premiered in Hollywood one month after his death from a cerebral edema. It was made for $85,000 and it grossed $90 million world wide.)

His swagger and his style as well the depictions of him defeating American tough guy Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, helped make Bruce Lee a hero for the downtrodden. As one historian puts it, Lee represented all brown people, the entire third world, when he was shown defeating the best that America could present in the film.

Bruce Lee also repeatedly said his goal was to, as he put it, express himself honestly, and to express the human body. There's a lot to be said about ritualized violence, the counter-culture's embrace of Eastern philosophy, America's view of itself and the third-world during the Vietnam era, and about other subjects that I Am Bruce Lee can only breeze past. But the film – and Lee's passionate admirers, including Kobe Bryant and Mickey Rourke (both featured) – makes the case that Bruce Lee was far more than just an action hero with the one-inch punch.

Follow on Twitter @AdamianJohn

I Am Bruce Lee

Feb. 9 and 15, cities and ticket information at

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