Be Water: New ESPN documentary charts Bruce Lee’s life, career and legacy as told by friends, family and collaborators

Legendary martial artist, actor and writer Bruce Lee is the subject of a new ESPN documentary charting his life, career, and legacy as told entirely by his family, friends, and collaborators.

Be Water takes a look into Bruce Lee’s childhood in Hong Kong, his attempt to break into Hollywood, and his final defining years making movies in Hong Kong.

The film chronicles Lee’s earliest days, as the son of a Chinese opera star born while his father was on tour in San Francisco, and then raised in Hong Kong over what became an at times troubled childhood. Sent to live in America at the age of 18, Bruce Lee began teaching Kung Fu in Seattle, and established a following that included his future wife, Linda.

Be Water also chronicles the struggles the martial artist and actor faced to win over American audiences as an Asian leading man. Bruce Lee eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he strove to break into American film and television, starting out as a fight choreographer and actor.

It was clear Hollywood wasn’t ready for an Asian leading man – and so he returned to Hong Kong to make the films that would make him a household name. Bruce Lee had made just a handful of films before his death in 1973 at the age of 32.

Bruce Lee’s friend and collaborator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes in the documentary: “America was not ready for an Asian hero.”

The documentary’s title is drawn from a Bruce Lee quote that encompasses his philosophy about martial arts and life itself: “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Be Water is the latest documentary from filmmaker Bao Nguyen, who was born to Vietnamese parents in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1983. Having been exposed to Bruce Lee’s martial arts classic, Enter the Dragon, as a kid, Bao Nguyen recalls: “I was just blown away. I’d never seen a lead actor who looked like me. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was the film’s hero. He wasn’t the villain. He wasn’t a sidekick. He was a confident leading man. Growing up in America, I was not used to seeing this type of depiction of Asian males.”

Bao Nguyen previously directed documentaries such as We Gon’ Be Alright which centered on racial issues, and the short Where Are You Really From?, which centered on the story of Nguyen’s parents escaping from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon.

Bao Nguyen told ESPN: “Bruce Lee’s become an icon that anyone can project their story on. But in order for heroes to become relatable, for people to really want to be like them, you have to know their struggles. Their fears. You need to be able to say, ‘He had the same insecurities that I have, but he believed in himself and fought his way through it.’ I find that to be the most aspirational part of Bruce Lee.”

Be Water premieres on 7 June at 9 pm ET/PT on ESPN

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at

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