"I’m not sure there’s a more uneven body of work in contemporary television than that of ESPN Films, but sometimes the rollercoaster proves worth the ride," says Jack Hamilton. "This Sunday, just a few weeks after the network finished airing its incoherent, bloated, and breathlessly hyped Michael Jordan advertisement The Last Dance, it will premiere Be Water, a nimble, nuanced, and at times even poetic documentary about martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Directed by Bao Nguyen, Be Water is one of the best entries in ESPN’s longstanding 30 for 30 documentary series, and a welcome reminder that the network is capable of producing terrific original content when it’s not under the thumb of those it’s covering. Bruce Lee is, in many ways, a singular presence in popular culture. He is among the most famous action stars of all time, yet still something of a hazy figure. I would venture that almost every American has heard of Bruce Lee and can immediately conjure his image, but far fewer have actually seen one of his films, in part because there are so few of them. Lee starred in only four completed martial arts films in his lifetime, the last and most famous of which, Enter the Dragon, was released one month after his sudden death by cerebral edema in the summer of 1973. With the possible exception of James Dean, it’s difficult to think of another movie star who’s exerted such monumental influence in such a relatively slim body of work."
Be Water explores the changes Bruce Lee went through in the seemingly many lives he lived: "Peeling back layers, Be Water examines the actor adapting to several different environments — notably the extremely racially restrictive Hollywood of the ‘60s — until his 'flow' becomes a tidal wave of superstardom," says Michael Ordoña. "The film seizes on the opportunity to reach ESPN’s audience, providing context for America’s treatment of Asians rarely addressed on the network. Given the time restrictions of a 96-minute documentary, Be Water does yeoman’s work in surveying the (gold) mountain Lee had to climb. Perhaps, given current events, viewers might be more open to understanding that struggle now."
Be Water is at its most potent when it makes its arguments visually: "The footage gathered is remarkable, not only famous moments like Lee and ex-pupil Chuck Norris limbering up before their climactic fight in The Way of the Dragon, but home movies, family photos, and clips from his less-celebrated career as a child film star in Hong Kong," says Alan Sepinwall. "(He appeared in 20 movies there before his parents sent him to America to keep him away from gang trouble.) Every time we watch footage of Lee in action, it becomes more exasperating that the only person who seemed to know how to use him on camera was Lee himself."
Be Water's score includes themes about Hong Kong and racism: “There are a bunch of themes that Bao (Nguyen), the director, wanted," says composer Goh Nakamura. "One was a Hong Kong theme for any time Bruce goes back to Hong Kong. Another one was a Hollywood theme for all his experiences in Hollywood. Then there’s also a theme for his dad, a theme for his wife, a theme for his son and a theme about racism.”
Shannon Lee says it's wonderful that her father's story can be told on the ESPN platform: "That my father’s life, and struggle, and philosophy will get to reach to a whole segment of the population that are sports fans, that are interested in challenges of all sorts," she says. "And I think that the point of view of the film is really beautifully done in portraying, in a way that other documentaries haven’t, about other struggles with institutional racism, and finding his way, and how to champion himself continuously in an environment that was extremely challenging."