Will Thornton contemplates the ethics of misrepresenting real people through film.
In what should be no surprise to anyone, Quentin Tarantino has once again found himself in hot waters following the release of his latest film. However, quite exceptionally, the latest controversy regarding the auteur filmmaker doesn’t revolve around violence, female-actors, or racial slurs. Instead, Tarantino is being reprimanded for his comic representation of iconic martial-arts actor Bruce Lee in his latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, who is presented as an arrogant farce of an actor, contrary to his ‘true’ nature, as many have stated when coming to Lee’s defence.
In Once Upon a Time, there is a scene where Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth is reminiscing over an incident that occurred behind the scenes of the popular 60’s TV show The Green Hornet, in which the former soldier/wife-murderer-turned-stuntman watches, with a smirk on his face, Lee telling an entranced audience how he could easily take on Muhammed Ali in a fight. Booth, who finds this whole scene extremely funny, berates Lee for his claims, and proposes a fight to prove that Lee’s claims are all exaggerations and boasts. Lee accepts the challenge, and in a downright hilarious scene we see Booth prove himself right: he begins sparring Lee and, after a minute of over-the-top Kung Fu preparation, ends up throwing him into a car so hard he dents it.
It is clear this scene, and by extension the representation of the fictional Lee, is played for laughs by the writer-director, and as a results many have come to the defence of the real life Lee, stating that he was never as arrogant or boastful as Tarantino portrays him, and was, in truth, a humble and kind-hearted actor. The most prominent protestor to this representation is Lee’s own daughter, Shannon Lee, who states that this representation of her father is an un-empathetic caricature, and that thanks to Tarantino he “comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air”. Recently Tarantino has also come under fire for refusing to censor this scene of his film following the requests of the Chinese government; when the director quite-rightly refused this demand, he was told Once Upon a Time would be completely banned from being shown in China. At least one director nowadays still holds true the values of artistic integrity.
The thing you have to remember is that Tarantino’s film is entirely fictional, its climax literally revolves around changing the history of one of the most infamous and horrific incidents that has ever occurred in Hollywood
But who’s to say that Tarantino isn’t totally within his right to portray Lee in such a way? Representing real people in film is nothing new in the industry and has happened many times in the past with little-to-no controversy. Take the portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a portrayal of the real-life First World War hero that drew notable criticism from Lawrence’s own brother; what about the totally fictitious representations of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus? Both Lawrence and Amadeus take real life people and turn them into almost-entirely fictional characters, and yet did that stop either of these films from being critical successes that are still celebrated to this day? No. And in my opinion we should apply the same logic to Tarantino’s representation of Lee.
The thing you have to remember is that Tarantino’s film is entirely fictional, its climax literally revolves around changing the history of one of the most infamous and horrific incidents that has ever occurred in Hollywood. So why are people showing so much contempt towards this one scene, a scene that Tarantino himself has admitted is merely based on certain reports other people in the industry have given about Lee? Besides, it’s all in the title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino is letting us know right off the bat that his film is nothing more than a fairy-tale, a happy ending to a real-life tragedy, and what’s a fairy-tale without a little bit of comic relief? Is Lee’s portrayal in Once Upon a Time unrealistic and over-exaggerated? Most likely. Is it offensive and problematic towards the deceased actor? Perhaps. But is it undeniably hilarious and totally fitting within the film? Yes. And to that extent I say we give Tarantino a pass on this controversy, as it is clear that the director in no way wants to mock Lee, or in any way damage his immense reputation, but merely make a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the past, and to the big-headed actors that existed in the industry.