In this engrossingly intimate film by ESPN, the life of the legendary Bruce Lee is explored in detail both by those who were closest to the man himself and cultural experts who have chronicled the politically tumultuous times that he lived through. All of which is complimented by rare revealing archive pieces that reveal more about an icon taken far too soon more than ever before…
By the time Be Water aired in June 2020, ESPN’s 30 For 30 series had gone far beyond a simple anniversary celebration and had earned a reputation for standout sports documentaries over more than a decade. With that in mind, Be Water is even more of an outlier, having very little to do with the sports realm at all (putting aside any claims that Bruce Lee is an accidental MMA pioneer). In fact, this documentary is so much more about exploring a mysterious man and the environment he was shaped by.
If you’ve pressed play expecting to marvel at his kung fu movies and the mastery of his craft that he displayed so effortlessly, you won’t be entirely disappointed. Indeed, it’s as if the creators were anticipating this desire as the first 10 minutes are a tour de force of peak Bruce Lee. Showing him in magnificent fight scenes on movie sets and other flashes of the man at the height of his powers. But with that satiated, we quickly settle back down and reel all the way back to the early 1960s, where we begin the process of using a family archive to tell the story of a boy who never seemed to quite fit either in the east or the west.
The closest thing we have to a narrator here is Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter. She is not a narrator in the traditional sense but she does read out various excerpts from her father’s letters that serve as somewhat of a narrative anchor as the film progresses. On that note, this production does not rely on the rather tired “talking heads” trope that so many documentaries of this ilk can fall into. Yes, people give their opinions throughout but they are never shown (until the credits anyway), instead the screen is used to showcase various pieces of archive footage and images that are appropriate to the topic being discussed. This makes things visually interesting and stops the usual lulls that are prone to happen when the same interviewee is shown on screen repeatedly.
As for what is discussed, racism is an early and frequently returned to topic throughout the 96-minute running time. If you’re someone who gets a little twitchy when this “woke” topic is mentioned in modern society, you may be tuning out already. However, it really is a valid area of discussion when profiling the life of Bruce Lee. After all, he was born in 1941. Even as a child, the irrational distrust of all Asians post-WWII was at a peak. Even for those who did their best to settle into U.S. society. And so, as Lee embarked on the meteoric-yet-short career that he’s iconically known for now, it’s fascinating to acknowledge and explore the various degrees of racism (both malicious and systematic) that he fought through to get there. I want to be clear that I found none of this heavy-handed. Everyone is given their time to speak (including a couple of people responsible for stalling his western career) and it really isn’t preachy. Of course, what makes all of this fighting against the system even more poignant is that he barely had the time to enjoy his success in America once it finally arrived.
In summary, Be Water is a documentary that is made all the better for getting the Lee family on-board. It uses its access to a seemingly expansive library to enrich the viewing experience and tell an intimate story of a man who worked to keep a mystique about himself during his lifetime. He was smart enough to know what kind of public image he needed to succeed in the west, while refusing to acquiesce to racial stereotyping. Still, nearly 50 years on from his death at the time of release, it was time to reveal the man behind the legend to the world and this does a fantastic job of exactly that.
Ranking: 5 out 5 stars
Disney Plus Presentation
Be Water is available on Disney+ in a maximum resolution of 1080p Full HD on compatible devices. As this is a relatively recent TV special for ESPN, it has not received a physical release as of writing.
Be Water does not currently include an “Extras” tab on its page as of writing, meaning that not even the standard “promo clip” is available.
Presentation Ranking: 4 stars out of 5
“Be Water” is available to stream on Disney+ now in many countries including the UK and Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands and more. U.S. readers will find the documentary on ESPN+.
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