It might be difficult for some people to truly understand the impact Bruce Lee had on the world, especially if they weren't alive in the 1970s. But during the 70s, Bruce Lee was a one-man phenomenon, even after his untimely death in 1973. His name was synonymous with any and all forms of martial arts, which was sweeping through Western pop culture in every medium imaginable--there were kung-fu kicks and karate chops to be found in films, television, comic books and music. And at the end of the day, it was pretty much all because of Bruce Lee.
Today, as the influence of Asian culture and the Hong Kong film industry can be seen in an endless parade of product from every corner of mass media and pop culture, it is easy to take for granted that it wasn't always this way. There was a time when Chinese/Oriental/Asian characters in pop culture were relegated primarily to sinister villains like Fu Manchu or the unflappable detective Charlie Chan, played almost exclusively by Anglo actors. You also had Hop Sing, the harried cook on television's Bonanza, played by Victor Sen Yung, who pretty much encapsulated the standard roles available to Asians in Hollywood. But beyond that, there were no Asian leading men or heroes to be found until Bruce Lee came along. (silent era film stars Sessue Hayakawa excluded).
How Bruce Lee Changed the World is a History Channel documentary that explains...well...how Bruce Lee changed the world. And while the title may seem a bit hyperbolic, the documentary both builds and proves its case. Tracking the career and life of Lee, this doc examines the many facets of Lee, who was not just an actor and martial artist, but a philosopher, teacher and writer was well. You could also throw in nutritionist, physical fitness expert, cultural ambassador and at least three or four other labels, but somehow you'd still come up short in trying to define Bruce Lee.
Through a ton of interviews with people like filmmaker John Woo, martial arts superstar Jackie Chan, hack director Brett Ratner, rapper/actor LL Cool J, comedian Eddie Griffin and Wu-Tang legend RZA, intercut with archival footage and film clips, How Bruce Lee Changed the World reveals the story of Lee, who was born in the United States, raised in Hong Kong, and then returned to America when he was a still a teenager. Lee studied philosophy in Seattle, began teaching kung fu, and eventually moved to Los Angeles where he struggled to make a name for himself in film. He earned a certain degree of fame as Kato on the short-lived television series The Green Hornet, but the stereotype-defying roles Lee wanted to play in Hollywood eluded him, and he eventually returned to Hong Kong, where he became a huge star.
There have been many documentaries about Bruce Lee over the years, as well as a bio-pics, all of which have ranged from good to the shamelessly terrible. To the best of my knowledge, however, none of those films have ever examined the impact Lee had on global level in so many different areas. It's not just how he changed the way Asians were portrayed in Western media, or how he introduced martial arts to pop culture. As this History Channel documentary shows, Lee had an impact on multiple levels including sports, fitness training and marketing. How Bruce Lee Changed the World seeks to establish an elaborate example of all the ways Lee affected the world, and does so with varying degrees of success.
The problem with the documentary is that it suffers from the typical sort of History Channel dryness. There is a pedestrian quality to the production at times, and the film really suffers from interviews with people who bring nothing relevant or interesting to the table. Does anyone really care what Brett Ratner thinks about Bruce Lee or anything else for that matter? And am I alone when I think, "Why are you interviewing LL Cool J and Eddie Griffin"?
Despite some of the problems with the film, overall it is a decent documentary that goes a long way to explain the incredible impact Bruce Lee had on a worldwide level. It would have been nice if all could have been said in slightly more compelling manner, but sometimes you have to be happy with what you've got, because the alternative is nothing at all.