Birth of the Dragon: makers of film about Bruce Lee respond to 'yellowface' row

Producer and director contest complaints that their drama sidelines Lee in favour of an invented white character, and other cultural insensitivities

As arguments continue to rage over diversity issues in cinema, repeated complaints over Hollywood’s insensitivity towards Asian themes and actors have begun to make an impact, joining a long-running crisis over the participation and portrayal of African Americans in the film industry. Adverse comment appears to have coalesced around two films in particular: a live-action remake of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell, which has cast Scarlett Johannson in the lead role; and a film called Birth of the Dragon, which aims to tell the story of Bruce Lee’s celebrated and formative real-life contest with martial arts grandmaster Wong Jack Man in 1964.

The film-making team behind Birth of the Dragon say they have found it “painful” to be included in controversy, which has involved wider arguments about “yellowface” and the “white saviour narrative”. The particular issue surrounding Birth of the Dragon, which stems from the online release of a promo reel to accompany the film’s premiere at the Toronto film festival, concerns the inclusion of a fictional Caucasian character, a young martial arts student, alongside Lee and Wong. Online complaints – including from IMDb users who have seen the finished film – accuse the film-makers of turning “Bruce Lee into a caricature” and reducing “Lee to a side character in his own story … White people, would it kill you to stop inserting yourselves into everything?”

Michael London, one of Birth of the Dragon’s producers, says the controversy has been “painful”, and with such socially conscious films as Milk, Trumbo and The Informant! on his CV, he is keen to stress that he “takes these kinds of things very seriously”. He says: “No one had the intention to do anything other than celebrate Bruce Lee, at a time when east and west are opening up to each other in a profound way.”

Birth of the Dragon takes as its subject an early, formative episode in Lee’s life, when he was living in San Francisco in the early 1960s. The source material the film-makers have used is a 1980 article by Michael Dorgan (for Official Karate) that outlines in detail the differing descriptions of the event: Lee himself, for example, wrote that he won convincingly in a few minutes, while Wong described a much more even 20-minute combat. The article also suggested the fight was a symbolic clash of martial arts styles and philosophies that helped lay the groundwork for Lee’s own ascension to superstardom. The fictional Caucasian character – named Steve McKee, and played by Billy Magnussen – acts as a go-between for Lee and Wong, helping to set up the fight and tie together related subplots connected with gangland activity and the purpose of martial arts.

The film’s director George Nolfi, perhaps best known for sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau, says the McKee character was necessary to “represent the west” and was conceived as a clear reference to actor and martial-arts aficionado Steve McQueen – who of course was nowhere near the Lee-Wong fight in real life. Nolfi says: “The fight seemed to be rooted in a disagreement about bringing kung fu to the west, and it is a brilliant conceit on the part of the writers to show it through the eyes of a westerner who is learning kung fu.”

London adds that the promo reel that aroused online hostility was aimed at Hollywood film buyers, and was therefore a tool to enable inroads into a mainstream American audience. “It was made primarily to allow distributors to see the film as a marketable proposition. From a Hollywood standpoint, Birth of the Dragon looks like a foreign film: it has a largely Asian cast, it was financed by Asian financiers, there’s only a single white actor. What’s so funny was that, while we have been accused of tokenism over the portrayal of Asian characters, during the making of the movie we were concerned about tokenism for the exact opposite reason, because we only had one white character.”

Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man and Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee in Birth of the Dragon.
Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man and Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee in Birth of the Dragon. Photograph: Dave Friedman/TIFF

Dr Felicia Chan, lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, is not so easily convinced: “Bruce Lee is iconic and well-known, and holds near-mythic status both in eastern and western markets. It is not as if his character/persona needs to be ‘explained’ to an audience ... There is something illogical and ironic about depicting the apparently strong ‘influence’ Lee is said to have had in the west by sidelining him.”

In any case, Chan adds, “Lee also had a significant influence on black martial artists and black audiences in the west. It is a complete misrepresentation to continually equate ‘west’ with ‘white’.”

Chan also has little sympathy with the “foreign film” argument, practical a consideration though it may be. “If film-makers so fear the ‘foreign’, then what makes it acceptable to make a film about a Chinese-American (it must be remembered) martial artist and actor who, despite being born in San Francisco, himself struggled with being ‘foreign’ in Hollywood?” Chan adds that Lee had to go to Hong Kong (where he was also considered a foreigner) to get his film career off the ground, before returning to his US homeland as a foreign import/star. “Lee’s own complex career trajectory subverts these cultural binaries and outmoded stereotypes.”

Birth of the Dragon’s difficulties are feeding into a wider debate about “yellowface”, the term used to describe Caucasian and non-Asian actors playing Asian characters, an ethnic variant on minstrel-style “blackface”. Glaring missteps such as Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s may be a thing of the past, but Johannson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, as well as Matt Damon’s “white saviour” character in the Zhang Yimou-directed The Great Wall, have focused attention on claims of more subtle forms of cultural appropriation. Says Chan: “Caucasian actors may no longer don the makeup and the prosthetics but they nonetheless occupy a space on the screen as a stand-in for something/someone else.”

The recent upsurge in activity from China itself – both in terms of box-office clout and willingness to participate and shape Hollywood offerings – is also a factor. The Great Wall, for example, is produced by Hollywood outfit Legendary (best known for the recent Batman trilogy and The Hangover series), who are now owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda. “My own sense,” says Chan, “is that Chinese investment in Hollywood films is less concerned about the politics of representation than about profits. They seem quite happy to pump money into films such as Star Trek Beyond and the Kung Fu Panda franchise. The Chinese in China do not need to justify their cultural identity to western audiences, and are quite happy to sell stereotypes if it means moving merchandise.

“Where the real damage and injustice of yellowfacing and whitewashing are most acutely felt is among communities, actors and professionals working and living in the west, and for many [that is the] only home/history/culture they know.”


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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