Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was pretty awful.
In a movie where Tarantino showed reverence to every star who even came close to the purview of his late '60s Hollywood playground (including convicted child rapist Roman Polanski), he chose to make Bruce Lee—the only minority character in the whole movie—the butt of a joke. While every other star got the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Tarantino depicted Bruce Lee as an arrogant caricature who needed to be knocked down a peg by bravado-filled stuntman/anti-hero, Cliff Booth.
Then, at a press conference in Moscow, someone asked him straight-up about the Bruce Lee controversy and Tarantino got his chance to make things right. One important thing to note is that, as far as potential controversies related to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood go, Tarantino is actually pretty lucky it's this one. For instance, people could be focusing on the fact that his positive portrayal of Polanski doesn't mesh well with the fact that he once defended Polanski by claiming that it was "not rape" because his child victim "wanted to have it." But alas, we're focusing on the fact that he did Bruce Lee dirty. A wordsmith as talented as Tarantino should be able to talk his way out of this one in his sleep, right?
Quentin Tarantino explains why Bruce Lee is so funny in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood www.youtube.com
First, one of the biggest issues people had with Tarantino's Bruce Lee portrayal was the character's claim that he could "cripple" Muhammad Ali. This was a point that Lee's former student, Dan Inosanto, directly disputed, saying: "Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on."
Here's Quentin's take: "If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that."
He's doubling down. Oh no.
But hey, maybe he'll properly address the other main grievance––that the first Asian actor to break through as a leading man in Hollywood, a hero to a whole generation of Asian Americans, is used as fodder to show how powerful a random fictional (white) stuntman is. I mean, this one has an easy defense. The scene is Cliff Booth's flashback: He's recalling the story, and Cliff is an arrogant dude. He's probably just aggrandizing himself in his own mind, right Quentin?
"Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could."
"If you ask me the question, 'Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?' It's the same question. It's a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he's a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up."
Okay, so Quentin Tarantino ultimately falls back on the kindergarten defense. "The guy I made up is the strongest so he wins because I said so." Very cool, Quentin!