Half a century after the death of Bruce Lee, for several generations of Africans, the actor remains a legend. What is the secret of the popularity of the "Little Dragon" across the continent?
There is little documentation on the history of cinema in Africa. However, several documentaries and researchers claim that, as Hollywood cinema entered the African cultural scene, between the 1950s and the 1970s depending on the country, combat films were very popular with the public.
Among the stars of these films, actor Lee Jun-fan, alias Bruce Lee, who has become a hero for several generations of young people in the world, but also in Africa. So much so that long after his death and the democratization of cinema on the continent, the films of the "Little Dragon" were still widely shown in Africa, until the 2000s.
Is it the cinematographic prowess of the actor and director, his talent as a fighter or his philosophy that seduced the African public? One thing is certain in any case, many Africans wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee, a role model for Africans
Cameroonian Dominique Martin Saatenang was the first African to train at Mount Song, China, where Bruce Lee supposedly created his jeet kune do. In his dojos installed in six African countries, Saatenang hung a portrait of Bruce Lee as others wear portraits of political heroes.
Former Tunisian opponent Moncef El Ouerghi, who died in 2012, known in the Maghreb for having created Zamaktel, a combat sport, was widely involved in spreading an incredible rumor that he would one day beat Bruce Lee. The legend says that Ouerghi would have faced the fighter during the Lamp Beach championship in 1972.
At the Atlas cinema in Algiers, the work of Bruce Lee has been shown every year for several years now, at the sustained rate of… three screenings a day. And the success does not dry up, the sessions being sold out.
The Franco-Ivorian director, Philippe Lacôte, tells a meaningful anecdote. “I was a teenager watching a Bruce Lee movie with my friends at the cinema in Abidjan. Bruce Lee was our hero then. At one point in the film, one of the villains was coming to attack Bruce Lee from behind while he was distracted, and suddenly one of the audience members jumped onto the stage and stuck a knife through the projection of the villain at the back. 'screen. It was my first lesson in cinema”, remembers Lacôte in the documentary “Saving Bruce Lee”.
For the Nigerian MMA champion, Israel adesanya, Bruce Lee would be "the pinnacle of what a martial artist can aspire to be". As for the Ghanaian boxing legend, Azumah Nelson, the latter confided after winning the world championship in 1984 that the one who inspired him was none other than… Bruce Lee.
The latter inspired Africans so much that in the early 2000s Kinna-Uganda was born, a series of films made in Uganda by local directors, for some Bruce Lee fans. Director and producer Isaac Nabwana – via his studio Wakaliwood – has for example produced some forty action films in recent years, including “Who Killed Captain Alex? ", released in 2010. A film inspired by the martial arts productions of Bruce Lee which, for a budget of barely 85 US dollars, met its audience: 6 million Internet users watched it on the YouTube platform .
Did Bruce Lee inspire anti-racist movements?
The declarations of love from Africans towards Bruce Lee are not lacking. If the rest of the world has probably started to forget the "Little Dragon", with the release of more modern productions, Bruce Lee remains present in the collective African memory. He remains, despite the years that have passed, a legendary actor, but also a symbol of the improvement of the mastery of combat sports.
For the creators of "Saving Bruce Lee", the famous Cameroonian arts curator Koyo Kouoh and the Lebanese writer Rasha Salti, the image of Bruce Lee is above all that of an ambassador for the fight against racism.
And, precisely, beyond Africa, a quote from Bruce Lee dating from 1971 still figures in the subconscious of almost all anti-racist movements, and revolutionaries in general: “Empty your mind, be formless. Formless, like water. If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crush… Be like water, my friend”.
An anti-dogma philosophy carried by Bruce Lee throughout his life, but which had inspired the theoreticians of revolutionary violence of the black nationalist movement in West Africa and the United States, almost as much as the writings of Frantz Fanon or Malcolm X.
With added value: for journalist Bao Nguyen, the "fluidity" instilled by Bruce Lee - who personally campaigned against racism in the United States - resonated in the streets, during demonstrations against the dictatorship, the police or other violence, anywhere in the world.
The analyst explains that a “generation for which the best fighter was Bruce Lee, can only fight like him”. Affirming that the demonstrations following the deaths of Breonna Taylor or George Floyd in the United States, or even during the riots in the Parisian suburbs in 2005 after the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, would have been inspired by… Bruce Lee! He speaks in particular of avoiding confrontation with the police in one place, to relaunch the demonstrations in the other, so as to "avoid the water crashing".