By Morgan Roberts
With the Oscars inching closer, the conversation around the films nominated is intensifying. And one conversation is sparking debate on representation in film and intent behind that representation.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “Licorice Pizza”(2022), you will find more than a killer 1970’s soundtrack and a strong performance by Alana Haim. You will also get to watch a character make a racist joke, twice, with no acknowledgment of the derogatory comment or repercussions for it. In the film, a businessman and restaurant owner played by John Michael Higgins, speaks to his Asian wife – in English – using an offensive fake accent. As stated before, it is done twice in the film. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Anderson kind of doubled down on the incident. You can see the exchange – with IndieWire writer Eric Kohn – here:
As someone who was in a theater, with a large crowd, laughing each time the offensive and racist accent was used, I could not tell if people were laughing because the character was a bigot or because we have been conditioned to laugh at people’s accents, dehumanize them, and use their differences as jokes.
So, it sparked a larger quandary outside of Anderson and what he was saying. The intent of it all. It is time for an analogy.
Let us say I am across a room from a person named Bob. I have a water bottle that I want to give to Bob. My intent is to take the water bottle, throw it to Bob, and I intend for Bob to catch it. Scenario one, I throw the bottle at Bob, he catches it, and what I had intended to occur happens. Hooray.
Now, scenario two, let’s say I throw the water bottle at Bob and it misses him completely, sailing past him. Bob might be confused: “Why did you throw that water bottle at me?” Well, I explain my intent and Bob could be less than amused or simply just misses the point of what I meant by throwing the water bottle. That is me missing the mark. Even with my intent, Bob didn’t like the water bottle coming at him, didn’t understand why the water bottle was thrown, or water bottles flying in the air isn’t his thing. And that’s okay. Water bottles aren’t for everyone.
Our third scenario is where I hurl that water bottle at Bob. This time, I hit Bob right in the face. Maybe I even hit him so hard his nose starts bleeding, he might develop bruising or a swollen face. Regardless, I have hurt Bob by throwing my water bottle, even though I intended for him to catch it. A normal person should apologize to Bob, offer to help.
Now, an apology is the first step to accountability. I can say, “Bob, I am so sorry for hurting you.” But if I choose to throw a water bottle again and hurt someone else, my apology isn’t going to mean much because my actions have not changed. At that point, I am just a madwoman throwing water bottles at people.
Let’s get back to bleeding Bob. In scenario three, I have thrown a water bottle at Bob and hurt him. If I walk up to Bob and say, “Bob, my intent was for you to catch that water bottle.” Does Bob care about my intent? Does my explanation of my intent make Bob’s pain go away? No. When you harm someone, you do not get to define their hurt. The right thing to do is acknowledge the pain you have caused, learn from it, and do better. Instead of lobbing a water bottle without warning, maybe you shout, “Heads up!” before throwing it. Maybe you ask your friends, who know more about water bottles; those friends might be able to help you find a better way of doing it.
But expressing intent does not undo pain you may have caused people. And you have to acknowledge that pain. There will be times that films you really enjoy harm someone else. Nothing is free from criticism, but how you handle that criticism speaks volumes. For instance, in 2020, “Promising Young Woman” was my favorite film. Yet, the way assault was discussed and handled was criticized, and rightly so. It has forced me to do my own research, to learn about films that may have handled the topic better, and to simply listen to the people who were harmed by the film. It takes nothing to really hear people’s stories. And nothing unpropitious happens to you for learning how to be better.
And as long as you can accept responsibility for your actions, learn from the experience, and try better the next time, then you’re okay in my book. We are all people. People mess up. Just look at Cameron Crowe and Emma Stone with “Aloha” (2015). They acknowledged what they did was wrong by having Stone play a part that should have gone to an Asian actor. Stone is still frequently poked fun at for that, and I have yet to see her correct someone for it. It is called accountability and it’s crucial that if we make something that hurts someone, we hold ourselves accountable for it.
Anderson is neither the first person nor will he be the last to be confused by criticism of a derogatory joke. But, it is important that we continue to have the conversation about intent and the accountability that should follow. Hopefully, that teaches us not only to make better art, but be more mindful as creatives of people different from us. Cinema is an art form that should be about highlighting humanity; not belittling or dehumanizing people.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in Anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes committed against Asian communities. Hollaback! is an organization striving to end harassment; they offer resources and trainings which you can find by visiting their website (https://www.ihollaback.org) you can find further trainings and resources. Additionally, Stop AAPI Hate (https://stopaapihate.org) provides resources, data, news, and trainings. Stop AAPI Hate collects hate crime data while having a grassroots approach to addressing anti-Asian racism.