I happened to catch a terrific documentary the other night, “I Am Bruce Lee,” which combines a well-researched biography of the late great martial arts star Bruce Lee with interviews with everyone from his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, to LA Lakers star (and martial artist) Kobe Bryant who discuss Lee’s legacy and enormous influence on American pop culture.
Much of the documentary focuses on Lee’s efforts to overcome racial stereotypes of Asians that were prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s (many are still with us), and his struggles against a system that was stacked against featuring a male Asian in a leading role.
One segment got me thinking, where the film asserts that the system is still stacked against Asians â€“ even today, there has been no major Asian male star who has the draw of, say, a Brad Pitt.
Sure, Jet Li for a time took up the martial arts mantle, and so did Jackie Chan. But Li’s talent never transcended his action roles, and Chan’s brand in Hollywood is as a comedic lightweight even though he can act in dramatic parts. Plus, once niched into martial arts, you’re always a martial artist. Even Bruce Lee might not have overcome that hurdle, had he lived.
There are some potential future contenders, though: John Cho can hopefully rise above the youth market appeal of the “Harold and Kumar” films and build on his butt-kicking role as Sulu in the new “Star Trek” movies, and it’s possible to imagine Tim Kang (TV’s “The Mentalist”) and Sung Kang (the “Fast and Furious” movies) cast as big-budget leads someday.
But I can’t monku (complain) too much about the lack of Asian men in star positions. The fact is, we’re doing so much better than just a few years ago in Hollywood, that we should be celebrating.
Less than a decade ago, I was giving speeches on the lack of Asian faces on TV and in movies.