“Enter The Dragon” remains a must see 45 years later.
On August 18th, 1973, Bruce Lee hit the silver screen across the U.S. in “Enter the Dragon”, blasting open a path for others to charge through and connecting him to a movement which had been ignited by Blaxploitation films three years earlier.
Lee burst upon the scene during a time of transition in America, especially in Black America. The decade of the Civil Rights Movement had ended and the Vietnam War was still raging on. Black soldiers were returning home to resentment, unemployment, urban decay, rampant drug usage and limited opportunities while Black America was devoid of positive imagery on the silver screen.
Up to that point, with very few exceptions, Hollywood gave us stereotypical depictions of characters of color. Waiters, slaves and sidekicks; never the leader and definitely never the hero. Black visionaries, tired of the lack of opportunities and the stereotypical depictions of Black life and people on film, channeled that frustration and anger into movies “made by us, for us”, giving Black America films and lead actors to cheer for. It started with Ozzie Davis’ “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (5/27/70) and went into overdrive once Melvin Van Peeples released the controversial yet wildly successful “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” (4/23/71), Richard Roundtree shot up the screen in “Shaft” and Gordon Parks Jr. and Ron O’Neal gave us the story of Youngblood Priest in the classic “Super Fly”.
This was an era where Black America got to “stick it to the man” and celebrate new roles which inspired instead of frustrating.
Some might debate the effects of the Blaxploitation era, but none can dispute its success and impact and how it took control of the narrative and perceptions of Black America. It was in this same vein that Bruce Lee flourished, recognizing the lack of opportunity for Asian American actors and understanding that representation matters. In order to facilitate change, Bruce took it upon himself to affect the process.
But it took disappointment and a move back to Hong King to facilitate.
On September 9th, 1966, four years prior to the Blaxploitation era, Bruce Lee made his American television debut as Kato in ABC TV’s “The Green Hornet”. It was one of only two primary roles played by Asian-American male actors on television at the time, the other being George Takei’s Sulu from “Star Trek” which, ironically, debuted a day before The Green Hornet. While Takei would go on to play the role for years, one which would he is still recognized and revered for to this very day. The Green Hornet was cancelled after one season, leaving Asian Americans with only one true male face on television.
Lee toiled in television for a few years, but was unhappy with the path and vision he was on, so he moved back to Hong Kong and found immediate success with not only The Green Hornet, which was a hit in the Asian market, but also in subsequent films including The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972), all of which accomplished Lee’s goal of changing and controlling the narrative of Asian male characters in Hollywood.
“What Bruce Lee wanted to do was to create a heroic Asian male character,” states Bruce Lee: A Life biographer Matthew Polly. “But it simply didn’t exist. There were only two types of roles Fu Manchu, the villain, and Charlie Chan, the model minority. And both of these characters were played by white actors in multiple films during the ’50s and ’60s.”
In his quest to expand opportunities for Asian American male actors, Lee went to work on what might be considered his two most iconic films. He started on “Game of Death”, featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabar, but then switched gears to work on “Enter the Dragon”, which we celebrate 45 years later. Unfortunately, it’s a film that Lee was not able to celebrate in person as he passed away on July 20th, 1973, six days before it’s release and a month before it hit U.S. shores. Yet despite his passing, Lee’s impact has never subsided, and “Enter the Dragon” is one of the reasons why.
Lee, playing the role of Lee, is tasked by the British government to investigate a crime lord known as Han. He gets invited to Han’s martial arts tournament on a private island and, along with Roper (John Saxon) and Vietnam vet Williams (Jim Kelly), infiltrates the crime boss and his operation, helping to destroy his drug empire while freeing all of the prisoners he had held captive.
The film not only gave us the iconic fight scenes Lee was recognized for and martial arts movie fans craved, but also characters and scenes we still hold dear today. Bolo (Bolo Yeung) was introduced to a global audience, paving the way for long career in entertainment including films such as “Bloodsport.” Jim Kelly was given his first major film role, one which he capitalized on by moving on to work on classic films such as “Black Belt Jones” and “Three the Hard Way.” (ironic that Kelly was cast as a Vietnam vet). Audiences were also exposed to Lee’s iconic quotes and subtle humor, such as “the art of fighting without fighting.”
But the fight scenes are where the movie made its mark.
We all went crazy as we watched Lee fight O’Hara (Robert Wall), who he learned earlier had killed his sister, so you knew that he was going to let him have it. After embarrassing him in their competition, O’Hara refused to submit, turning to broken bottles in a last ditch attempt to fight a victorious and uninterested Lee. But once the bottles smashed together, Lee had all the ammo he needed to finish O’Hara off and avenge his sister, giving us the killing facial expressions that would become legendary.
The tournament would continue on, but not without more drama. After O’Hara’s death, we would watch as Williams was killed by Han, Lee wound up being captured, Roper would fight and kill Bolo and Lee would face Han in a one on one battle featuring mirrors and wolverine like claws, giving us the iconic images of Lee with the blood stained scratches on his body. It’s an image which would be featured on posters that 70s and 80s babies hung on the walls in their rooms.
Although we sadly lost Lee at an early age, his impact is still strongly felt today, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender or age. He’s quoted, imitated and embodied by fans worldwide. He opened the doors for actors, film makers and video games. He turned a martial arts discipline, Wing Chun, into one that is still practiced globally. He helped launch the careers of actors such as Jim Kelly and Bolo and was a crucial instrument that turned the genre of martial arts films into a global phenomenon. He created fans like the Rza, the Wu-Tang Clan, Berry Gordy and Quentin Tarantino, moving them to pay tribute to Lee through music and films such as “The Last Dragon” and “Kill Bill.”
Lee was a rare icon, a man who successfully bridged a connection between the Blaxploitation era, civil rights, Asian culture, diversity, pop culture and mass appeal. Through films such as Enter the Dragon, made on a budget of $850,000 but grossing almost $21.5 million in the U.S. alone in 1973, Lee became a star and eventually a legend.
More importantly, he accomplished his goal of changing and controlling the narrative when it came to Asian actors in film. In this day and age, especially on a weekend where the film “Crazy Rich Asians” brought in $34 million over five days, Bruce Lee should be recognized not only as a martial arts master and pop culture icon, but also as a champion for diversity.