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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Says Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 'Disrespects' Bruce Lee

One of Bruce Lee's most famous students isn't too happy with Quentin Tarantino.

NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently penned an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter in which he opined that Tarantino's depiction of his friend in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — which has stirred a great deal of controversy — left a lot to be desired.

In case you're unaware, Abdul-Jabbar — who, as a member of the "Showtime" Lakers, helped lead the Los Angeles club to five NBA championships in the '80s — is a prolific and talented wordsmith. He's written a truckload of books of both the fiction and non-fiction variety, has contributed regular columns to such publications as The Guardian, Time, and the Huffington Post, and has recently embarked on his first foray into television writing with a stint on the Veronica Mars revival. He is eloquent, informed, and well-researched — but when it comes to Lee, no research is necessary, as he knew the man well.

At issue is a scene in which Lee (portrayed by actor Mike Moh) is shown in flashback essentially puffing himself up, bragging that he could defeat Muhammad Ali before agreeing to engage in a round of fisticuffs with stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth manages to fight Lee to a draw, which — let's face it — is patently ridiculous, although the film implies that Booth may have been applying a favorable interpretation to his memory of the event.

Abdul-Jabbar opened his remarks in startling but hilarious fashion, illustrating that when they are portraying real people who are no longer alive to defend themselves, filmmakers — at least in his estimation — bear a responsibility to their subjects, a responsibility in which Tarantino fell woefully short.

"Remember that time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kidney-punched a waiter for serving soggy croutons in his tomato soup? How about the time the Dalai Lama got wasted and spray-painted 'Karma Is a Beach' on the Tibetan ambassador's limo? Probably not, since they never happened," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "But they could happen if a filmmaker decides to write those scenes into his or her movie. And, even though we know the movie is fiction, those scenes will live on in our shared cultural conscience as impressions of those real people, thereby corrupting our memory of them built on their real-life actions."

Lest his audience think that the basketball legend simply had it in for Tarantino, Abdul-Jabbar went out of his way to profess his profound respect for the man as a filmmaker. "This controversy has left me torn," he wrote. "Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers because he is so bold, uncompromising and unpredictable. There's a giddy energy in his movies of someone who loves movies and wants you to love them, too. I attend each Tarantino film as if it were an event, knowing that his distillation of the '60s and '70s action movies will be much more entertaining than a simple homage. That's what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness."

Abdul-Jabbar went on to explain that not only was the Bruce Lee that he knew exceedingly humble and slow to physical conflict, but that it was basically his life's mission to shed light on the fallacy of Asian stereotypes of his time — stereotypes which Abdul-Jabbar feels that Tarantino regrettably fell back on, in a jarring affront to Lee's legacy.

"During our years of friendship, [Lee] spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV. The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "That's why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. The John Wayne machismo attitude of... an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle."

The notion that Lee would ever boast about his fighting prowess, or accept a challenge to fight from some idiot, particularly rubbed Abdul-Jabbar the wrong way — because he knows from first-hand experience just how out-of-character such shenanigans would have been. 

"I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight. He always politely declined and moved on," he wrote. "First rule of Bruce's fight club was don't fight — unless there is no other option. He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn't on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prefers the good old ways."

Ouch. Obviously, the contempt in Abdul-Jabbar's piece is palpable — but if we know Tarantino, he's not going to be issuing any public apologies for his treatment of Lee anytime soon. After catching wind of remarks made by Sharon Lee, the martial arts icon's daughter, taking him to task for the portrayal, Tarantino didn't budge one single inch. 

Speaking at a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood presser in Moscow, Tarantino said, "Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy. I didn't just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. People are saying, 'Well, he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali.' Uh, yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, his wife, Linda Lee, said that... the first biography I ever read was Linda Lee's Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, and she absolutely said it."

Well, we're not sure if that is accurate, and Linda Lee Cadwell — who is still around — has so far had no comment. But Sharon caught wind of Tarantino's defense of himself, and she simply wasn't having any of it. Speaking with Variety, she said, "He could shut up about it. That would be really nice. Or he could apologize or he could say, 'I don't really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn't be taken as how he really was.'"

This looks like a controversy that won't be dying down anytime soon, and we'll continue to report on any significant developments. But, here's our take: Tarantino is a fine filmmaker, perhaps the greatest of his generation. We're pretty sure that he doesn't know quite as much as he professes to about Bruce Lee; he does, however, know a thing or two about arrogance.