Admitting the controversy around the film has left him "torn," Abdul-Jabbar said he is a longtime fan of Tarantino's work but also considers Lee his "friend and teacher." According to the athlete, he was a student at UCLA when he met Lee, who trained him in martial arts. Abdul-Jabbar credits this training with his "being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries."
Saying Tarantino's depiction of Lee shows "a lapse of cultural awareness," Abdul-Jabbar said it's up to filmmakers to "maintain a basic truth about the content of their character" when using real-life figures in their work. "Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Bruce Lee in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' does not live up to this standard," he wrote, saying that the "sloppy and somewhat racist way" Lee's portrayed is "a failure both as an artist and as a human being" on the director's behalf.
Lee's friend was adamant Bruce was "dedicated to changing the dismissive image of Asians" through his work, overcoming stereotypes he believes are present in Tarantino's movie. He added that it doesn't help the character is only in one scene of the movie, shown in a "one-dimensional" way.
At one point in the film (spoiler alert), Brad Pitt's stuntman character, Cliff Booth, and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) challenge each other to an informal fight -- best two-out-of-three -- while on the set of "The Green Hornet" TV show. Although Lee easily wins the first round, Booth throws Lee into a car in the second. The duo is interrupted before they go at a third round.
In his piece, Abdul-Jabbar said this never would have happened in real life.
"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 claimed. "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."
The basketball great -- who appeared onscreen with Lee in 1978's "Game of Death" -- recalled how during his "years of friendship" with Lee, the trailblazing star "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 recounted. "Asian men were portrayed as sexless accessories to a scene, while the women were subservient."
"That's why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way," he continued. "The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn't fly here."
When asked by Variety how Tarantino could put an end to the controversy, Lee's daughter Shannon said: "He could shut up about it."
"That would be really nice," Shannon continued, "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.'"
Shannon's response came a few days after Tarantino defended Lee's depiction in his latest film during a recent press tour in Moscow, Russia. The Oscar-winning screenwriter claimed Lee was "kind of an arrogant guy."
"The way he was talking ... I didn't just make a lot of that up," Tarantino said. "I heard him say things like that, to that effect. Even the thing with people saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read ... She absolutely said it."
The quote Tarantino seemed to be referring to from Linda Lee Caldwell's "Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew" was reportedly attributed to a critic in the book, and not Lee herself.