'Licorice Pizza' Faces Backlash for Racist Gag That Left Viewers Gasping

The new coming-of-age movie Licorice Pizza is facing some serious criticism after its opening weekend in select theaters this Thanksgiving. The movie is set in southern California in the 1970s and features some casual racism against Asian people. According to a report by NBC News, many viewers felt that these lines were unnecessary and ultimately just harmful, without adding to the art itself at all.

Licorice Pizza comes from director Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper and Tom Waits among others. It is about two young people growing up and navigating the world with their own strange relationship. Along the way, they twice run into a restaurant owner played by John Michael Higgins. The first time, he speaks in an exaggerated impression of a Japanese accent to his Japanese wife, and years later they find him married to a different Japanese woman, with whom he repeats the same joke.

"Not every attempt to ground Licorice Pizza in a de-nostalgized past bears fruit. A running gag about a white restaurant owner with a series of interchangeable Japanese wives seems meant as a joke about the character's racism, but the joke lands gracelessly," wrote Slate critic Dana Stevens in an otherwise positive review. Expanding on this point, other critics tweeted about the immediate responses these attempted jokes got in the theater and how that colored their experiences of the rest of the film.

"Picture this: You're watching LICORICE PIZZA. It's brilliant. Then, early on, a buffoonish character drops an Asian caricature. The (mostly white) audience laughs. And now you gotta think about that laughter the rest of the film," wrote podcast host David Chen. Writer and director Karen Maine tweeted: "There's an incredibly racist, seemingly pointless (other than a cheap laugh, which it got at the screening I was at) scene that mocks Asian accents."

Anderson defended this scene in an interview with The New York Times, saying that it was simply authentic to the time period of the 1970s. He said: "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."

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Still, some critics say that Anderson's film does not deal with racism against Asian people in any way, so including this singular "gag" is just jarring. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen told NBC News: "It's irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag," adding that the movie is "not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism." She also pointed out that there are no consequences for the racist character in Anderson's film.

Licorice Pizza is out now in select theaters around the U.S. It will be available everywhere on Christmas Day.