Why does the film industry still justify bigotry for the sake of art?
The Academy has made progress in recent years by recognizing and celebrating the talent of directors, actors and other creatives of color – after countless years of not doing so.
Paul Thomas Anderson (not to be confused with Wes Anderson) recently released a 1970s coming-of-age film titled Licorice Pizza, which was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Besides the obvious issue with the plot centering around the relationship between a woman in her mid-to-late 20s, played by Alan Haim, and a 15-year-old boy, played by Cooper Hoffman, the film drew criticism for what the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) calls “casual racism.” In two scenes, a white character played by John Michael Higgins uses an "extremely racist, mocking accent" when talking to his first and later second Japanese wife. He also calls his second wife by his first wife’s name. These two characters are not in any other part of the movie, and they only speak in Japanese with no subtitles or translation given.
“The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) believes that Paul Thomas Anderson's film is not deserving of nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Original Screenplay, and is asking other film critic associations to pass over it this awards season" the statement read.
MANAA said that Licorice Pizza uses racism "simply for cheap laughs, reinforcing the notion that Asian Americans are 'less than' and perpetual foreigners" and its inclusion in this year’s awards will "normalize more egregious mocking of Asians in this country, sending the message that it’s ok to make fun of them,” especially given the recent spike of hate crimes and attacks towards Asian Americans.
There’s a way to artistically portray discrimination and violence towards marginalized groups without being insensitive, like in Academy Award-winning films The Pianist and 12 Years a Slave. The Asian characters in Licorice Pizza exist to be mocked and demeaned for comedic purposes, and there’s no moral impact. There’s no artistic or social value to including it in the film, both of which are something you would expect from an Academy Award nominee. It's in poor taste to only include people of color if they can be a punchline.
In an interview with the New York Times, Anderson defended his use of casual racism by saying “I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You can’t have a crystal ball, you have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn’t happen right now, by the way. My mother-in-law’s Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.”
So, he completely lacks self-awareness and he pulled the ‘I know someone from this race so I can’t be racist’ card. While he is right that this sort of racist sentiment was much more common in the 70s, it's not accurate to the real people he based his characters on. The owner of the Mikado hotel and restaurant in Licorice Pizza, Jerry Frick, is inspired by the real man who owned the Mikado hotel, named Jerome Frick. His first wife was a Japanese woman named Yoko and she ran the restaurant and hotel business with Frick. His second wife, Hiroko, was also a Japanese woman and, according to their divorce court records from 1983, “The court found Hiroko to be a person of above-average intelligence and good health with a fluency in two languages – English and Japanese”.
Anderson’s claim that he is being “honest to that time” is a complete lie when it comes to these women. If he respected the other real people who inspired his characters enough to be realistic to who they actually were, then why does he not give two of the very few people of color in his film the same respect? Even if Anderson’s intention was to portray Frick as an insensitive, demeaning person, it's just poor writing to resort to racism. The two Asian women in this film do not get any character development besides being the exoticized and infantilized sidekick of a white man; they are otherwise interchangeable, one-dimensional characters who lack individuality or emotional depth. And if being historically accurate really is such a big deal to Anderson, then there should definitely be more than just two minor characters of color if it takes place in California.
There is a fine line between criticism of racism and other forms of bigotry and using casual racism as entertainment. The gray area between criticizing versus exploiting the experiences of marginalized groups is best put by the MANAA statement: “It’s irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag… it (the plot) is not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism.”
Emilia Cardenas-Perez is an online and print writer for Rowdy Magazine. She is a Journalism and Psych double major, a Virgo and a pescatarian. You can reach her on Instagram @emiliaaandreaa or by email emiliacardenas@ufl.