Licorice Pizza, a coming of age comedy set in 1970s Los Angeles, has been criticized for including controversial scenes in which a white character uses a racist accent to imitate his Japanese wife. Critics and audiences have debated whether the scenes simply depict a racist character, or whether they are racist as a whole since the film was released in November 2021. But the issue resurfaced in March 2022, after director Paul Thomas Anderson won both a BAFTA and a Critics Choice Award for the film, when a clip showing the scenes went viral on Twitter.
The clip shows two scenes from Licorice Pizza, which centers on high school freshman Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his magnetic, mostly platonic friendship with wayward 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). With its colorful clothes and dreamy soundtrack, the movie captures the vibe of the ‘70s—and also incorporates the era’s politics, which includes an abundance of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. For example, in the universe of Licorice Pizza, no one thinks it very strange for a grown adult and a young teen to be hanging out together (another plot choice that has prompted debate in the discussion over the film).
But there’s a difference between depicting the politics of the time period, and using the politics of the time period to depict racist views. Where exactly that difference lies has come under scrutiny ahead of the 2022 Oscars on March 27, where Licorice Pizza is up for three Academy Awards. Here’s what to know.
Licorice Pizza’s controversial scenes
Gary, a high school student and actor who also has a passion for business, helps his mother run an advertising agency and one of their clients is Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), who owns The Mikado, a Japanese restaurant with his wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui), who is Japanese.
The controversy stems from two separate scenes in the movie. In the first, Jerry is at the advertising office and going over a potential ad for the restaurant with Mioko when he speaks to her in an imitation of a Japanese accent, as if she cannot understand English herself, and that him speaking in this accent would somehow make it clearer. His wife and the other characters in the scene appear uncomfortable.
Later, in a scene at The Mikado, Jerry introduces his “new wife,” Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), who is also Japanese. Again, he speaks to her in a mock Japanese accent. When Kimiko responds to him in Japanese, Alana asks what she said. “It’s hard to tell. I don’t speak Japanese,” Jerry says.
It would be anachronistic for the film to exclude seedy behaviors that were accepted in 1970s America and Anderson includes many such moments: Alana is groped by her boss. A casting director remarks on her “Jewish” nose. A local politician is spied on for his secret gay life. In this landscape, anti-Asian racism was the norm. And part of the story is based in reality—many of the people and places are based on the real San Fernando Valley, and Jerry Frick, the real owner of the Mikado, had two wives of Japanese descent.
But the debate over Anderson’s scenes stems not from the depiction of racism in the first place, but in the way he does it.
How Paul Thomas Anderson has responded to the criticism
Controversy around this scene began stirring as soon as Licorice Pizza had a wide release in November 2021, and almost immediately, journalists started asking Paul Thomas Anderson about the scenes with Higgins. In a November interview with the New York Times, Anderson says of the scene “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.”
He also makes a point to note that his mother-in-law is Japanese and his father-in-law is white, so he’s seen this kind of scene play out often. (Anderson’s partner is Maya Rudolph, who’s father Richard is married to retired Japanese jazz singer Kimiko Kasai.)
In a February 2022 interview with IndieWire, following further public scrutiny over the scene, Anderson again responded to criticism, specifically people laughing in response to the racism in the scene. “I’m certainly capable of missing the mark, but on the other hand, I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed.”
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) released a statement condemning the film’s scene and calling for it to be removed from consideration for awards. “The cringeworthy scenes in “Licorice Pizza,” which takes place in 1973, do not advance the plot in any way and are included simply for cheap laughs, reinforcing the notion that Asian Americans are “less than” and perpetual foreigners,” wrote MANAA in their statement.
Thus far, the movie’s cast members have not commented on the criticism.
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The depiction of anti-Asian racism goes beyond Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza is far from the first movie to depict anti-Asian racism in a controversial way. A recent study found that between 2010 and 2019, 43% Asian American roles served as a punchline in top-grossing movies. That’s part of what makes the scenes between Jerry and his wives so divisive: some viewers see her as the butt of the joke, mocked for her accent, and others see him embarrassing himself with buffoonish behavior.
A similar controversy arose in 2019 with Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Set in late ‘60s Hollywood, the film follows an actor and his stunt double as they journey through Hollywood, encountering people and events both real and fictional. In one scene, Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth, a stunt double, encounters Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) on set, and the two challenge each other to a physical fight. Lee knocks out Cliff in the first round, then Cliff throws Lee’s body into a car, then the fight gets broken up.
Many viewers, including the late Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, found the scene to be a disrespectful portrayal of her father, who at the time was one of the only Asian movie stars working in Hollywood. Lee told the Los Angeles Times that she felt Tarantino “seems to have gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as kind of a buffoon,” adding that “I feel like he was picked on in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”
The criticism of Licorice Pizza‘s use of a mock Asian accent comes amid a rise in anti-Asian hate and violence. This year, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that in 2021, there was a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes compared to the year before. March 16 marked the one year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shooting, which killed eight people including six Asian women. After the pandemic began, anti-Asian rhetoric surged, including from President Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.”
In their statement on Licorice Pizza, MANAA wrote: “To shower it with nominations and awards would normalize more egregious mocking of Asians in this country, sending the message that it’s OK to make fun of them, even during a time when Asian Americans are afraid to go out on the streets because of the unprecedented levels of violence from fellow Americans blaming them for COVID-19.”
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