TV & Movies

The Licorice Pizza Controversy, Explained

“To me, I’m not sure what they — you know, what is the problem?”

Viewers have decried Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza for being racist. Photo courtesy of Metro...
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza has several draws: It’s a dreamy, vibey coming-of-age film set in early ’70s California. Fans of the rock band HAIM will be thrilled to see member Alana Haim in her film debut. Plus, Bradley Cooper is in it. The movie, released in November 2021, follows high schooler Gary (Cooper Hoffman), who befriends the 25-year-old Alana (Haim). Eventually, romance brews between the two. The film made rounds in the awards season circuit, even landing three Oscar nominations. But despite the favorable reception, the movie has been embroiled in controversy, with viewers decrying it for its anti-Asian racism and misogyny.

Two scenes are particularly controversial. In one, Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a white character based on a real person, and his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) meet with a publicist regarding the restaurant they’re opening. To “translate” what’s being discussed to Mioko, Jerry speaks to her in Japanese-accented English. Mioko then responds in Japanese sans subtitles, leaving audiences wondering what’s being said.

The next scene is even more contentious. When Gary and Alana meet with Jerry and his new Japanese wife, Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), Gary mistakes her for Mioko. Then, after a discussion, Jerry talks to Kimiko in the same caricatured Japanese accent. When Alana asks Jerry to then translate Kimiko’s response, he shrugs it off by saying, “I don’t speak Japanese.”

Historically, Asians in Hollywood have been used as punchlines, fetishized, and even rendered voiceless, and viewers decried the film as racist after observing these same themes in it. Despite the backlash when it first came out, the film still bagged multiple awards, including a BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay, upsetting even more viewers who think that showering the film with acclaim is harmful to Asians.

Even the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) called for a boycott of the film. In a statement made on Dec. 17, MANAA told an LA-based paper the “cringeworthy” scenes “do not advance the plot” and “are included simply for cheap laughs, reinforcing the notion that Asian Americans are ‘less than’ and perpetual foreigners.” The group also said that rewarding the film would “normalize more egregious mocking of Asians.”

The depictions onscreen feel incredibly offensive and harmful to viewers, especially when Asian American communities are still grappling with ongoing anti-Asian hate crimes, which have seen an uptick since March 2020. It’s been a little over a year since the Atlanta spa shooting in 2021, when eight were killed — including six women of Asian descent — and attacks on the Asian community still occur, leaving many in constant fear today.

While the cast has been mum about the controversy, Anderson voiced his confusion over the backlash. Speaking to The New York Times last Nov. 22, Anderson said that Higgins’ character’s behavior “happens all the time.” Saying “you have to be honest to that time,” he also told the outlet, “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.” Also addressing the other controversial point of the film — the age difference between the two leads — he said, “There’s no line that’s crossed ... It would surprise me if there was some kind of kerfuffle about it.”

In another interview on Feb. 18, this time with IndieWire, Anderson called the backlash “funny.” “It’s kind of like, ‘Huh?’ I don’t know if it’s a ‘Huh’ with a dot dot dot. It’s funny because it’s hard for me to relate to,” he said. “I’m lost when it comes to that. To me, I’m not sure what they — you know, what is the problem? The problem is that he was an idiot saying stupid shit?” When the interviewer said it could make viewers make fun of the stereotype, Anderson replied, “Right. Well, I don’t know. Maybe that’s a possibility ... I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed.”