"Warrior," a new Cinemax series inspired by martial arts icon and actor Bruce Lee, is readying for its premiere. But the show, some 50 years in the making, runs much deeper than just action sets and fight scenes.
The drama follows Chinese martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji from “Fast & Furious 6”) after he emigrates to 1870s San Francisco in search of his sister. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in the city’s mounting racial tensions and Chinatown’s Tong gang wars.
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Despite its 19th century roots, the 10-episode show’s executive producers said that “Warrior” brings important takes on Bruce Lee’s legacy, the Chinese-American experience and current immigration discussions to the table.
Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, who also serves as executive producer, said her father first pitched the idea to studios in the early 1970s. In the original pitch, “The Warrior,” Lee was supposed to be cast as the lead.
“But he was told he couldn't be cast because he was Chinese, and American audiences wouldn't accept that,” she said. “There was a lot stifling of this [idea] as a possibility in my father's life and, in reality, to be able to make this is really something.”
Instead, "The Warrior" was retooled into the show "Kung Fu" with Caucasian lead David Carradine, who, according to reports, actually wore prosthetics to add a “squint” to his eyes to play the role. In a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times Carradine downplayed any controversy saying, "What I know is that I was sent a script and I said yes. What was I supposed to do, say no? I didn't even know at the time that Bruce Lee had been considered."
Although Lee was both discriminated against and marginalized by Hollywood executives, he had a widespread influence on children of the ‘70s, ‘80s and later generations, including two other “Warrior” executive producers.
Show creator and executive producer Jonathan Tropper (Cinemax’s “Banshee” and “This Is Where I Leave You”) became enamored with Lee after he started learning martial arts in the sixth grade and began watching Lee classics like 1972’s “Return of the Dragon” (originally released as "Way of the Dragon") and 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” after the actor had already died.
Executive producer Jason Lin — who has worked on projects like the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, HBO’s "True Detective” and NBC’s “Community” — has been a long-time Bruce Lee fan. After his family emigrated from Taiwan when he was 8 years old, Lin would often sit in front of the TV and watch shows like “Kung Fu,” a 1970s show whose Caucasian lead cast as a half Chinese character deeply confused the young Lin.
"I didn’t understand why there was a Caucasian man speaking in broken English, and no one ever explained it to me. When I got older, I heard about the Bruce Lee story about how he had pitched and they didn't want to cast an Asian to play an Asian-American role, which made no sense to me."
It’s because of shows like “Kung Fu” that Shannon Lee said her father’s lifetime goal was “to bring an authentic portrayal of his cultures, of the Chinese experience and of his martial art to the world, and in particular the western world.”
Not only will “Warrior” inform viewers about Chinese-Americans’ past and Bruce Lee’s philosophies, but Tropper said the series will also become “a real mirror on the racial issues we’re having today.”
Many of the show’s anti-Chinese politicians and characters make comments like “Put real Americans back to work.”
“We definitely find some of that "Make America Great Again" stuff in the mouths of some of our politicians,” Tropper said. “As we’ve moved on, we’ve become a little more bold about inserting some of the rhetoric from political debates today into our script.”
With a plot that speaks to both Chinese American and white American perspectives and boasting a diverse cast from around the world, “Warrior” also adds to conversations about diversity and representation in Hollywood.
That’s something Lin, who described his own struggles to break into the industry, was acutely aware of.
“We wanted to make sure we created an environment where we were able to go around the world, have people read the script and come and really earn the roles,” Lin said. “I am so proud of this cast...I felt like everybody, the whole cast, committed to these characters and you can feel that when you watch it.”
Tropper hopes that “Warrior” inspires people to watch the Bruce Lee classic films.
“Obviously, production values have changed, but the magnetism and the pure swaggering grace of Bruce Lee, there still hasn't been anyone who comes close to that,” Tropper said. “I would hope it just inspires people who see 'From the writings of Bruce Lee' to go back and watch 'Enter the Dragon,' 'Way of the Dragon,' 'The Chinese Connection' and 'The Big Boss' just to discover the source material.”
"Warrior" premieres on Cinemax on April 5.