NO STYLE IS THE BEST STYLE
Bruce Lee's Approach to Martial Arts Remains an Approach to Life.
This past Sunday night, ESPN premiered Be Water, a 30 For 30 documentary about the life of Bruce Lee that focuses heavily on how racism and prejudice created massive barriers in his career’s trajectory. Lee’s battles with stereotypes against Asians were more than problematic to his path but as the documentary details, indicative of the United States’ overall view of Asian Americans and immigrants who had been villainized for decades and only partially accepted due to their contributions to the workforce.
Be Water emphasizes Lee’s approach to these obstacles, which was both steadfast, analytical, and resolute, cementing him as not only a silver screen star but as an Asian American that changed the perception of his culture and dismantled Hollywood conventions. While there’s no question that Lee was a master of physicality and his discipline, it was his overall methodology that executed his mission.
In the video embedded above, Lee details why he doesn’t believe in “style,” which seems counter to someone who defined the very word for his entire career.
“Style tends to separate men—if you don’t have style and say here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely? Style is crystallization that is difficult to change. (without it) It’s a process of continuous growth.”
Lee’s career was curtailed in 1973 at only 32-years-old. After taking the painkiller Equagesic, Lee suffered an allergic reaction that caused brain swelling leading to his death. In the wake of his passing, Lee’s contributions to cinema and martial arts was the driving factor in making ancient fighting techniques of the East a legitimate trend in the United States that carried into the 1980s.
From embroidered satin jackets and nunchucks to teenage obsessions with ninjas and the subsequent movies and video game franchises, let alone enrollments in martial arts classes, the acceptance of Asian culture and the cool it created is directly because of Lee’s persistence and charisma.
Simultaneously, mainstream America was being exposed to hip-hop culture in the 1980s via music, graffiti, and even breakdancing and like Lee, those driving the culture were often denied entry or input on how it was being depicted to the masses. Unlike hip-hop, what Lee created didn’t sustain in the way he intended. Martial arts movies starring Asians crept back into cult status as Hollywood opted for white actors and as the popularity of Tae Kwon Do and Karate dissipated, it would take Brazillian Ju-Jitsu and organized fighting to revitalize mainstream interest in martial arts, albeit showered in Sports Drinks, goatees, and Orange County Outlaw imagery. There wouldn’t be a resurgence of Asian superstars in major action movies until the mid-late’90s with Jet Li and Jackie Chan leading a new wave of blockbusters.
While Be Water is hardly the definitive document of Lee’s contributions to culture, it, like Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s Hollywood miniseries, succinctly frames up the movie industry’s reluctance to cast people of color, people of the LGBTQ community, or both in leading roles or non-stereotypical roles at all. For those unaware of history, it offers a vivid snapshot of the hurdles Lee had to bound in order to achieve the visibility and impact he sought and the compromises he made to get there.
Throughout the documentary, Lee’s confidence and comfort speaking English grew to the point that his expressive movement and intense glare matched his oration. Even as a child actor, Lee is completely in control, and through his inner journey, experience, self-discipline, and keen observational skills, he turns that magnetism into a cultural force that still resonates, as detailed by the array of people who detail his influence throughout Be Water. It’s also of note that Lee went against convention early in his career by mentoring Americans—many of which whom were African American—a practice that was frowned upon at the time by his community. The convergence of cultures was paramount in his development and understanding of US culture. Even though Lee was born in San Francisco, California, the majority of his youth was spent in Hong Kong before returning to the US at age 18.
Back to style.
Skateboarding is rife with “style” clichés, to the point that they’re so beaten into us via captions and hashtags that they’re meaningless. To Lee’s point, they do become prohibitive, in the sense that styles can separate us—bowl slashers over here, blasting Slayer, ledge tech and cargos over there, acoustic introspective flowy person and their art show back there, and All American Rail Chompers® doing their thing in HD.
Style becomes so definitive to us that when someone transcends it, it’s as if the “legend” tag is instantly applied because it’s so uncommon. Whether it’s John Cardiel or Ishod Wair or Mark Gonzales or Oski Rozenberg, you can argue that their “style” is defined by having no style other than using what you want and discarding what you don’t.
That’s flow. That’s personality. That’s originality and the very awareness and pursuit of having no style is akin to the constant “water” metaphor Lee references throughout the 30 for 30. Water can gracefully fill a glass and violently destroy the rockiest shore. During one segment of Be Water, Lee’s affinity for Mohammed Ali is detailed. Lee wasn’t studying Ali in order to mimic him but rather to look at how he could leverage Ali’s technique to enhance his discipline, with an eye for what would translate well for his body type. That part is particularly interesting through the lens of skateboarding when you think about Brian Lotti talking about how Chris Miller’s vert skating influenced his curb and ledge skating or that Brian Anderson loved watching Ben Schroeder, simply because he was a big person, like himself.
And it’s larger than adding new flavors and flair to your technique and approach in a literal sense.
Style is crystallization that is difficult to change.
Be Water alludes to a greater metaphor. Had Bruce Lee sought a single path to reach his goal of making action movies his way, they may have never happened. Instead, he culled learnings and experience, saw unique opportunities, and kept his guiding principals and persona, while always remaining liquid.
So while you can take Lee’s lesson on style to mean that your approach to a curb or a concrete wall is all about expression and putting yourself into each moment accordingly, perhaps the larger thought is to simply avoid being stagnant and crystalized—avoid being sedentary in both your physical and mental activity.
Change is happening at warp speed and fluidity is a powerful tool. We have to utilize all our senses and resources to adapt and advance as a culture not in skateboarding, as an entire society.
Before you say “I’d do that or say that but it’s not my style” or more specifically “I’m not political—I don’t do protests or speak out like on social media… ” understand that may be a better look to have no style at all.