New Documentary Explores Physical, Mythical and Philosophical Essence of the Man
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
To celebrate the Chinese New Year, this Year of the Dragon, Bruce Lee, the legendary “Little Dragon” returns to screens for a select two-night only event in 60+ cities across the country. I Am Bruce Lee, the new documentary feature from Pete McCormack (2010’s Academy Award shortlisted documentary Facing Ali) offers up the cultural icon (voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century as well as one of the Greatest Pop Culture Icons by People Magazine) as a mirror into the interwoven matrices of life, spirituality and philosophy. Bruce Lee was a fighter, a martial artist who delved into the art of hand-to-hand combat. His style was “no style,” but in order to achieve that elusive aim, Lee had to become a student of a variety of approaches to be able to walk away from a particular pattern or down a new uncharted path.
Through archival footage, Lee speaks for himself explaining his constantly evolving appreciation of the complex convergence of the spirit and the harsh daily realities he faced in the world at-large. But the film also packs in explosively inspired commentary from a broad spectrum of worldwide stars, including UFC President Dana White who calls Lee the “Father of Mixed Martial Arts,” NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, boxing champions Manny Pacquiao and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Gina Carano (Haywire), Academy Award nominated actor Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) and Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, among many others.
The film, like the man himself, raises intriguing questions. Foremost among them, what would Bruce Lee be today? As I, a film critic and not a fighter, watched I Am Bruce Lee, I had to re-set my frame of reference. I was a child when Lee died, so he emerged from the box of television and the frames of movie posters. But I wondered where this fighter/entertainer/philosopher would have boldly gone in our brave new world. Would he have spawned his own alternative Matrix-like realm and become The One, the Neo-type savior of that virtual age?
The Wachowski Brothers created a challenging framework, a philosophy for their sci-fi martial arts epic that seemingly would have intrigued Lee, fighting to break through the paradigm that obscures the true reality of life that enslaves humanity. Yet in the world of The Matrix, the way individuals came to know and understand each other was through their fighting styles. Fighting was their means of expressing themselves, their true natures, a notion that Lee addresses in the documentary.
McCormack, in an enlightening phone interview, supports this notion that Lee might have had a spiritual kinship with the Wachowskis and The Matrix. “It boils down to how he [Lee] explored the world. That was why I wanted to do the film. How he explored the world was fascinating to me. How he saw the world, through the ‘matrix,’ it is so true, through the conditioning, through the idea of martial arts; it is really interesting, if you see it philosophically.”
Modern-day philosopher/academic (and actual council member in The Matrix’s last human-safe haven, Zion) Dr. Cornel West preaches of his quest to define what it means to be human, modern and American — ideas that also fascinated Lee. He was an Asian man of mixed heritage constantly at odds with both sides of his nature: a fighter who learned the old styles and ways but took the knowledge forward, pushing it to create a new personal standard. And he was the father of his own mythology, his own dreams of who Bruce Lee might one day be.
The title directly forces the audience to consider the levels of nuance in his persona and our affiliation with them — we each want to claim him, to see some part of ourselves in him — whether it’s the physical artistry of the man in motion, the cultural/political symbolism of a third world warrior kicking the butts of the oppressors, or the thoughtful dreamer intellectualizing the content and context of his presence. I Am Bruce Lee grants us the opportunity to see our best selves through him.
In the Dayton area, I Am Bruce Lee will screen at the Rave Huber Heights 16 and the Rave Dayton South 16. For more information about show times and ticket prices, check with these theaters or visit www.iambruceleemovie.com.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com