Quentin Tarantino’s Bruce Lee Controversy Finally Has A Satisfying Explanation, 5 Years After OUATIH
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Quentin Tarantino’s Bruce Lee Controversy Finally Has A Satisfying Explanation, 5 Years After OUATIH


  • Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee sparks controversy & sets the stage for a fictional Hollywood in OUATIH.
  • Lee’s defeat by Booth signals a departure from reality & foreshadows the movie’s alternate ending.
  • The film’s fictionalized Lee pales in comparison to Tarantino’s other homages to the martial arts legend in his movies.



Although Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood did mock the iconic martial artist, his biography explains the reasoning behind this bizarre choice. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was a huge hit upon its 2019 release, but some elements of the darkly comedic thriller satirizing and honoring Hollywood weren’t appreciated by everyone. In particular, a scene where Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth beats an arrogant Bruce Lee in an on-set fight caused significant controversy. Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee noted that the scene depicted her father as “arrogant” and accused Tarantino of insulting Lee’s memory.

Similarly, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar called the scene “somewhat racist,” a comment that is particularly notable since the sports star was a friend and co-star of Lee’s during his lifetime. Although Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s ending diverges from reality in a major way, Lee’s cameo is one of the first and subtlest times that the movie alters real-life history. Booth beating Lee in a fight serves to underline how tough Booth is, but it’s wildly unrealistic and the setup for the fight involves a lot of arrogant bragging from the famously humble Lee. As such, many viewers were understandably upset about this inaccuracy.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Bruce Lee Controversy Explained

Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee was divisive upon the movie’s release

Custom image of Mike Moh as Bruce Lee juxtaposed with Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

The new book Quentin Tarantino: A Graphic Biography explains that Bruce Lee is one of the director’s heroes, and he does accept that nobody could handily beat the star in a real-life fight. However, three of Tarantino’s movies exist outside of reality and offer a revisionist version of history, namely Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s ending confirms that the story does not exist within reality, but Lee’s fight with Booth already established this by letting audiences know that this story won’t play by the rules of the actual world.

This does contradict one of Tarantino’s earlier comments on Lee’s depiction in the movie when the director defended the scene during a Russian press conference in 2019. Tarantino fanned the flames of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Bruce Lee controversy when he claimed that the actor was “kind of arrogant,” noting that his widow Linda Lee’s autobiography saw her say that Lee could have defeated Muhammad Ali in a fight. This defense contradicts Tarantino’s claim that the movie’s version of Lee is a fictional character from an alternate reality since the director justified Lee’s arrogance with references to his real personality.

Bruce Lee Losing To Cliff Booth Confirms That OUATIH Is Set In An Alternate Reality (Setting Up Sharon Tate’s Survival)

Tarantino’s movie foreshadowed its wild ending with Lee’s defeat and demeanor

Tarantino does make Lee more sympathetic during the scene of him training Sharon Tate for her movie and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s version of the character isn’t entirely obnoxious. However, Tarantino’s biography mostly excuses Booth defeating Lee in a fight, rather than the character’s demeanor in the scene. From the director’s perspective, Booth beating Lee was a solid way for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to foreshadow that its story doesn’t take place in our reality. One Once Upon A Time In Hollywood theory posited that the ending was a fantasy, but this misses the point.

The entire movie is a fantasy that imagines a world where a pair of Western antiheroes arrive at just the right moment to avert a historical tragedy. In the world of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the Manson family are gormless goofballs with no grand plan, rather than reality’s CIA-linked white supremacists. In this context, it is no surprise that Lee wasn’t the dignified movie star and martial artist his family, colleagues, and fans remember, but a blowhard who boasted about his prowess only to be knocked out by a relative unknown since Tarantino’s movie is set in an alternate reality.

Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Set In The Actual World Reiterate That Bruce Lee In OUATIH Isn’t The Real Bruce Lee

Tarantino’s other Lee homages prove that the filmmaker respects the martial arts legend

Uma Thurman as The Bride standing ready for battle in Kill Bill Vol. 1

Tarantino’s affinity for the real-life Lee is evidenced in the rest of his oeuvre. The characters that Lee inspired in the director’s filmography, like The Bride in Kill Bill, are incredible badasses who can’t be defeated. Since Kill Bill is one of the Tarantino movies that could reasonably exist in the real world, its version of The Bride is a better reflection of the director’s take on the legendary martial artist than Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s fantastical story. That said, this explanation may not be enough to satisfy some of the director’s critics, particularly those closely connected to Lee.

After seeing Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Shannon Lee told the LA Times, “While I understand that the mechanism in the story is to make Brad Pitt’s character out to be such a badass that he can beat up Bruce Lee, the script treatment of my father as this arrogant, egotistical punching bag was really disheartening.” While understanding that the version of Lee seen in Tarantino’s movie isn’t intended to be the real-life actor, there is still some validity to this complaint. After all, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood did see Quentin Tarantino use Lee’s legacy as a plot device.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Release Date
July 26, 2019

Columbia Pictures , Heyday Films , Bona Film Group , Visiona Romantica

Tim Roth , Margot Robbie , Mike Moh , Timothy Olyphant , Al Pacino , Kurt Russell , Leonardo DiCaprio , Dakota Fanning , James Marsden , Brad Pitt , Luke Perry , Bruce Dern , Scoot McNairy , Michael Madsen , Margaret Qualley , Emile Hirsch

159 minutes

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