Saturday, June 6, 2020

Bruce Lee ESPN 30 for 30: Be Water

“Empty your mind. Be formless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. It can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” - Bruce Lee

Directed by Bao Nguyen, ESPN Films presents Be Water, a new documentary about Bruce Lee, the cinema superstar and martial arts legend whose life was cut tragically short. In conjunction with the Bruce Lee Family Archive, Be Water, a reference to Lee's philosophy about martial arts combat, offers a comprehensive look at the charismatic leading man and powerhouse athlete who took the world by storm.

The American born Bruce Lee was raised in Hong Kong and was forever a man caught between two worlds. He would spend his career building a bridge between East and West. Lee began his career in the entertainment industry at a young age. His father, who did not appreciate Lee's developing interest in martial arts and acting, sent him back to America in hopes that his son would forge a different path.

Bruce Lee was a master of the martial arts combat known as Wing Chun. Lee studied other forms of combat and idolized Muhammad Ali whose boxing moves Lee incorporated into his own work. Originally Lee had plans to start a nationwide chain of martial arts schools but at a Long Beach Tournament he was spotted by hairdresser Jay Sebring who told his client producer William Dozier about Lee. Dozier had been looking for an Asian actor to appear in the television series The Green Hornet. Lee auditioned and got the part.

Credit: Bruce Lee Family

The rest should have been smooth sailing for Lee but it was anything but. Lee had everything going for him. He was handsome, charming, incredibly fit, a supremely talented athlete and had an on screen persona that was just electric. But being a Chinese American with a thick accent held him back in an industry that was just not ready or willing to accept him. Lee understood that making it in Hollywood was the Holy Grail of success. He went back to Hong Kong to make films hoping that would elevate his star power. There he proved that he was a film star. Bruce Lee was about to take Hollywood by storm with Enter the Dragon and his work on an upcoming feature film Game of Death. Tragically, he died in Hong Kong at the age of 32. He didn't live to see the success he could have in Hollywood or the legend that he would become.

"I'm sure that my father did not fully appreciate the behemoth he was up against. How deeply systemic it is. That said I don't think he was naive. He just believed in himself so deeply. He knew he had something to share that was worthwhile. He knew how hard he was willing to work." - Shannon Lee

Be Water is one of the best biographical documentaries I've ever had the privilege to see. And I don't make that statement lightly. Nguyen does an incredible job chronicling Bruce Lee's life and career, weaving in Lee's struggles as a Chinese-American man and the treatment of Asians in the entertainment industry. There are moments that are just infuriating like seeing how Lee had to fight to get dialogue for his character Kato in The Green Hornet and how he lost the role in the TV series Kung Fu to actor David Carradine. Throughout the documentary we get a sense of Lee's free spirit, his love for his family, his natural confidence, outgoing nature and strong work ethic. Lee was a proactive participant in his journey; never complacent, always fighting for better roles and representation.

The documentary is solely made up of archival footage including clips from his films and television appearances, home videos, audition tapes, family photos, interviews, newsreel footage and more. It is narrated by the interviews with those who knew him best including his daughter Shannon Lee, his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, his brother Robert Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nancy Kwan, close friends, film producers and others. If you watch this film, do not stop before you get to the end credits. Perhaps the best end credits I have ever seen. I really love what Nguyen did with this. It was quite touching and I was very moved. When you watch the film you'll know what I mean.

"As a child of Vietnamese war refugees, I grew up in America where depictions of Asians and Asian Americans were through a very skewed and narrow lens... It wasn’t until I saw a young man named Bruce Lee onscreen did that all change. I saw someone who looked like me for the first time, with an unapologetic confidence and magnetism that resonated on every inch of the silver screen. Since then and through the making of this film which has taken me over 5 years, I have learned about the racial struggles that Bruce Lee had to overcome to become a cultural icon and it has always been my hope to share his personal story with all the fears, struggles, and vulnerabilities that made him human." Bao Nguyen

Be Water premieres on ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series on June 7th at 9 PM EST.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Black Film History: A Reading List

Whether you want to expand your knowledge or diversify your summer reading challenge selections, here are a variety of classic film books about black film history to consider.

I didn't include any buy links. I encourage you to Google these titles (or click on my reviews if I listed them) if you want more information. If you're interested in purchasing books, I recommend contacting your favorite independent bookstore to see if they have any titles in stock or if they can order on your behalf. I recently placed an order with Larry Edmunds Bookshop that included Sidney Poitier's memoir This Life and a biography on Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

If you want to get started with a few articles before diving into books, I have some pieces I wrote for Turner Classic Movies, DVD Netflix and The Film Detective that I recommend. Over the past year and a half I've been researching African-American film history and am really proud of the pieces that I was able to write for those outlets. Full list is at the very bottom of this post.

If you have recommendations to share, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.


Hollywood Black
The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers
by Donald Bogle

Other titles:

 Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks
An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films
by Donald Bogle

Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams
The Story of Black Hollywood
by Donald Bogle

Brotherhood in Rhythm
The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers
by Constance Valis Hill

The Devil Finds Work
by James Baldwin

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker
Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy

by Peggy Caravantes


Life Beyond Measure
Letters to my Great-Grandaughter
by Sidney Poitier

The Measure of a Man
A Spiritual Autobiography
by Sidney Poitier

Photo by Sammy Davis Jr.

Stealing the Show
African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood
by Miriam J. Petty

Stepin Fetchit
The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry
by Mel Watkins


America's Mistress
The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt
by John L. Williams

Black Oscars
From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us about African Americans
By Frederick Jr. Gooding

Dorothy Dandridge
A Biography
by Donald Bogle

Hattie McDaniel
Black Ambition, White Hollywood
by Jill Watts

Hollywood at the Intersection of Race and Identity
edited by Delia Malia Caparoso Konzett

In Black and White
The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.
by Wil Haygood

Josephine Baker
by Jose-Luis Bocquet and illustrated by Catel Muller

Mr. Bojangles
The Biography of Bill Robinson
by James Haskins and N.R. Mitgang

My One Good Nerve
by Ruby Dee

My Song: A Memoir
by Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson

Oscar Micheaux
The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker
by Patrick McGilligan

Separate Cinema
The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art
by John Duke Kisch

Sing and Shout
The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson
By Susan Goldman Rubin

Stars for Freedom
Hollywood, Black Celebrities and the Civil Rights Movement
by Emilie Raymond

Stormy Weather
The Life of Lena Horne
by James Gavin


DVD Netflix

Turner Classic Movies

Film Detective

Friday, May 29, 2020

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson

Hollywood Godfather
The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson
by W.R. Wilkerson III
Chicago Review Press
352 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9781613736609
September 2018

Amazon — Barnes and Noble — Powell's

"All his life Billy was in love with the impossible." — Joe Pasternak

Billy Wilkerson’s biggest dream was to be his own boss. He accomplished that in spades when he founded The Hollywood Reporter in 1930. The first issue ran September 3rd of that year and up until the day he died Wilkerson would be heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and would write 8,320 daily editorials himself. His success with The Hollywood Reporter came from constant innovation, aggressive tactics to sell ad space and the shrewd buildup of influence. At one time, Billy Wilkerson was the most powerful man in the entertainment industry.

A medical school drop out, Wilkerson transitioned to film and wore many hats in his early days in the industry. He worked in sales, marketing promotion, film criticism and journalism, all of which gave him wisdom and experience to make The Hollywood Reporter a success. In New Jersey he owned a Nickelodeon and a luxe theater. He eventually moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He worked with his friend Joe Pasternak and with actor El Brendel on a film project called Help Yourself. He shopped it around but no one bit. Hollywood had rejected Wilkerson and it hurt. Badly. He exacted revenge in a monumental way by going after the studio moguls with the first daily trade paper for the film industry.

Wilkerson went on to have other business ventures including the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and the Cafe Trocadero and Ciro in Hollywood. Many of his business ventures were innovative but ultimately failed him financially or personally. Wilkerson was tight-fisted with money and very demanding of his employees. He was a devout Catholic but also a man of many vices. He was a reckless gambler and had a severe Coca Cola addiction that ruined his health. Wilkerson was vehemently anti-communist and used his power, his connections with Howard Hughes and the public platform of The Hollywood Reporter to take down perceived communists in the industry. He could be very cruel, was unapologetic about his actions and used his mob connections to his advantage. The only thing that could truly be admired about Wilkerson is his business acumen and innovation. He was always thinking on his feet.

"The most successful figures in the entertainment industry... shared a sense of determination, an ability to weather massive misfortune." - W.R. Wilkerson III
Billy Wilkerson and his son W.R. Wilkerson III - Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Billy Wilkerson: Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson effectively chronicles the life of a difficult man who had a profound influence on the film industry in its early days. The biography is written by Wilkerson's son. I'm always a bit cautious about biographies written by family members. However, while reading the book I kept forgetting that the book was written by Wilkerson’s son. It felt very unbiased and thorough. The author leaves no stone unturned and is not afraid to explore the ugly side of his father's life story. And there was plenty of dirt to dig up. Perhaps the most shocking was Wilkerson's involvement with the Hollywood Blacklist. Even after the fact, Wilkerson was unapologetic about what he had done.

This biography offers a comprehensive look at Wilkerson's life and career, with a particular focus on the later, and his dealings with close friends including Joe Schenck, Joe Pasternak, Greg Bautzer (his lawyer), Howard Hughes, Johnny Rosselli (a mobster) and Lana Turner. The author conducted extensive interviews with his father’s right hand man George Kennedy who helped supply much of the information found in the book. Many people refused to be interviewed and it's a testament to the author's efforts that he pursued as many avenues and angles as he could to offer such a thorough biography.

 Thank you to Chicago Review Press for a copy of Hollywood Godfather for review.

Please note that this book review is not an entry into my summer reading challenge.

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