Bruce Lee was the unlikely hero of 70s Noongar kids. Now he's helping us share our language | Barry McGuire

We recognised ourselves in that non-white superhero on the big screen. We knew there was a fight in him – and knew there was a fight in us

As Noongar kids in the Western Australian wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin, we grew up with blue-eyed comic book superheroes and black-and-white TV shows about cowboys and Indians.

Back in the 1970s, the heroes they showed us didn’t look like the heroes we grew up with – our grandfathers, aunts, uncles and parents who loved us and taught us to be strong.

Then Bruce Lee came along. He was a hero different to all the other heroes. I first saw Bruce Lee, brave, powerful and lightning-fast, when his 1971 debut film The Big Boss came to the Kellerberrin drive-in.

To see a non-white superhero up on the big screen and to see that his hands and feet were too fast for the cameras they used in those days – wow. Superman could jump tall buildings with an industrial fan blowing his cape but Bruce Lee could do it for real.

We recognised ourselves in him and how he came to become something from nothing. We looked at him and knew there was a fight in him – and knew there was a fight in us standing up for ourselves and our culture.

When we were in class, sometimes we weren’t allowed to answer questions or take part at all until we got our own Indigenous teacher’s aide. But outside in the playground, we were tough. I remember the high kicks and the kung-fu screams as we’d take each other on.

We always knew this was our country and we wanted to be somebody in this country.

A still from Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, the classic 1971 Bruce Lee film dubbed in Noongar language for Perth Festival.
Barry McGuire: ‘I’m proud to be part of a project in which Bruce Lee fights for justice and speaks to us in our own language here on Noongar Boodjar in south-western Australia.’ Photograph: supplied

A few short decades later, I’m proud to be part of a project in which Bruce Lee fights for justice and speaks to us in our own language here on Noongar Boodjar in south-western Australia.

Lee’s 1972 movie Fist of Fury is being redubbed for a new audience as Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, an all-Noongar version to be screened at the 2021 Perth festival. It’s set in 1910 and I speak Noongar instead of Cantonese as a friend of Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen who fights to avenge the death of his master and for China’s honour against foreign colonial aggressors.

Fist of Fury made Lee a big star. His deadly martial arts, pride in his heritage and timeless wisdom made him a symbol of global solidarity for all people facing racial oppression, including us in the Noongar community. He died in 1973 at just 32, but he remains an emblem of power for people who have felt voiceless in their own country.

That’s why he is the perfect ally to join another global cultural giant, Shakespeare, to help advance the survival and strength of Noongar as a living language. The Perth festival artistic associate, Kylie Bracknell, adapted and directed Hecate, the all-Noongar Macbeth at the 2020 festival as part of the 10-year Noongar Shakespeare Project to promote Noongar language to the world.

When I saw Hecate, a story from the world’s greatest playwright with the characters speaking one of the oldest languages in the world, I felt and saw everything they spoke about. Every vibration that came from their tongues I knew from the time I was born. I still get a lump in my throat just thinking about it. It made me cry to see the brilliance that can be done by our kids.

With Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, many of the Noongar artists from Hecate have turned from The Bard to The Bruce for the 2021 Perth festival.

Fist of Fury Noongar Daa was inspired by Navajo Star Wars, a 2013 Navajo-dub of the original Star Wars film. Working with huge cultural figures like Bruce Lee and Shakespeare as well as Star Wars is an effective way to make people sit up and pay attention to what you’re doing. This is a language reclamation project nestled inside an Australian-first dub in a language spoken by only 2% of the entire Noongar population.

Noongar artist Barry McGuire stands on the banks of a river
Noongar artist Barry McGuire. Photograph: Jessica Wyld

Kyle Morrison is the perfect choice to voice Bruce Lee’s character. He was Yirra Yaakin Theatre’s artistic director in 2010 when he did a study tour to Britain and observed the resurgence of the indigenous Welsh language through theatre and art. Morrison came home and initiated the Noongar Shakespeare Project that took our language into local schools and all the way to London as Noongar sonnets performed at the Globe Theatre for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

When Kylie Bracknell asked me to be in Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, I was taken aback. I’m not so much of an actor, although I knew the story and the character from many years of watching this film. Like Lee’s Chen, my character is dealing with the grief of the death of their kung-fu master but I didn’t know how to voice that. Kylie simply said, “Uncle, we go to many funerals – you bring that.”

Bracknell is a brilliant director and an amazing artist on every level. What she does for our community is very special. I am so proud of her and all of the younger generation who created Hecate and now Fist of Fury Noongar Daa: people like Kylie’s husband Dr Clint Bracknell, Kyle Morrison, Ian Wilkes, Della Rae Morrison, Trevor Ryan, Maitland Schnaars and others under the guidance and wisdom of Dr Roma Yibiyung Winmar.

Through Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, our language is now living in a different area of life but it is the same vibration. When I saw the first footage in our language, I giggled so much. It took me back to sitting at the Kellerberrin drive-in, but thinking, “Hey, this time this is my language and I understand it.”

We stand as Noongar people on the world stage. The rest of the world sees all the Aboriginal nations as Aboriginal Australia, not as individual nations. I have been on a lot of world stages in Europe, the UK and the US where the audiences see me as Aboriginal, not Noongar. A project like this can be a platform for the world to get a more precise understanding of who we are. Perhaps the Ngaanyatjarra people, the Yawuru people, the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi, Martu or Wangkatha-Wongi will look at Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, and ask: “What films resonate with us?”

The release of this film through Perth festival will show Australians and everybody else who sees it that we are still living in this city, we are still living in this language. It shows our language is waking up again. Our language is living in our next generation and every generation after them to be taken into the world.

• Barry McGuire is a Noongar artist

Fist of Fury Noongar Daa is showing at select venues as part of Perth festival from 20 February

Barry McGuire

The GuardianTramp

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