Told  /  TV Review

Bruce Lee’s “Warrior,” and the Politics of Kung Fu

The Max series makes a radical argument for what constitutes American history.

“Warrior” tells the story of two crime families—the Hop Wei, which Ah Sahm ultimately joins, and the Long Zii—who are embroiled in a conflict that’s known as the Tong Wars. Lin has said that he was eager to develop a relegated history while also making mainstream entertainment. “I’ve always felt like it’s such an American story, but never told,” he explained, in a 2019 interview. “Warrior” expands our ideas of what constitutes “American history” by partly focussing on another competition—between the Irish and Chinese communities in San Francisco. The Irish community is led by Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), a de-facto labor organizer who goes to extreme lengths to maim Chinese workers in sought-after jobs, negotiating with American robber barons and elected officials. Meanwhile, the Long Zii make a deal with a nativist deputy mayor, in exchange for opium and increased policing of the Hop Wei. The deputy, who aspires to become the next mayor of San Francisco, encourages disorder in Chinatown so that he can run on a platform that involves ejecting all Chinese residents from the city. But he’s also interested in something more systematic: the creation of legislation to restrict immigration by targeting one specific ethnic group. Leary and the Long Zii both represent marginalized groups that have sold out for marginal power. It’s a clear charter to respective destruction, for the Long Zii especially, since their turf war will inevitably end with an immigration ban that will last more than sixty years, followed by another twenty-plus years of restrictions.

At times, “Warrior” can feel radical. It not only conjures figures who have rarely been centered on television before but also supplies these characters with rich inner lives. Still, there’s an occasional narrowness, which might be attributed to the fact that the show was conceived in the nineteen-sixties, by an actor who was predominantly interested in documenting the Chinese experience in America. There are barely any Black characters present, aside from a drug dealer and a vixen bartender, and their story lines are bland, despite occurring in the period immediately following Reconstruction. Even if the show’s focus is on Irish immigrants and Chinese people making a deal with whitey to tear one another down, it seems like there’s still an opportunity to shift the camera to nearby Stone Street, which was once the only Black enclave in San Francisco.