How Bruce Lee Exploded a Stereotype With a One-Inch Punch

Western culture has a long tradition of emasculating Asian men, from Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan to Hop Sing on “Bonanza.” So it was unfortunate, but not entirely surprising, to see the comedian Steve Harvey making jokes at their expense earlier this month in a TV segment, for which he later apologized.

But one of the earliest and most enduring pop-culture refutations of those stereotypes comes from Bruce Lee, who starred in just five feature films before his death in 1973.

The Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who devoted an entire play to Lee’s life, said he was the first Asian man to manifest all of the conventional American movie markers of masculinity. “He creates a new archetype in the West,” he said. “The Asian-American male hero.”

And while that archetype looks simple, Lee’s work is far more complex than it seems.

Those five starring roles, filmed in the space of three years, are as densely packed with meaning as Lee’s body was with lean, fast-twitch muscle, said La Frances Hui, an associate film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized “Eternal Bruce Lee,” a weeklong series of screenings that starts Friday.

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