April 4, 2013

MANAA Adds Disclaimers To Breakfast At Tiffany’s Screenings in New York and Beverly Hills

More articles by »
Written by: MANAA










The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy (BBPC) was going to sponsor an outdoor screening of the infamous Breakfast At Tiffany’s movie on August 11, 2011.  MANAA later learns the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary with screenings in Beverly Hills (July 29) and New York (August 8).  MANAA ensured that all presentations would be preceded by a disclaimer (and with BBPC, a video) noting the offensive yellowface make-up of Mickey Rooney and his stereotyped, buck-toothed portrayal of a Japanese businessman. 

Ursula Liang.

Ursula Liang.

July 7-Filmmaker Ursula Liang, who had launched a petition drive against BBPC’s event, contacts MANAA for help “in trying to abort this NY screening.” One of the groups supporting the gathering is the SyFy Channel, an NBC cable company.

July 27-Aoki contacts Kelly Edwards at NBC who puts him in touch with Kevin Richardson (Coordinator, Talent Development), which leads to Aoki speaking with Tahira Bhatti-McClure (the new VP, diversity and cable operations for NBCUniversal cable entertainment and cable studios) in New York.  Aoki mentions that in 2008, MANAA members and East West Players’ Marilyn Tokuda were interviewed for a DVD commentary track for the “Centennial Collection” of the movie and suggests that playing an edited version of the 17 minute piece before the screening might educate audiences about what to watch out for regarding Mickey Rooney’s offensive and stereotyped portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi.  Bhatti-McClure says she’s going to try to get him in touch with someone at BBPC.

Tahira Bhatti-McClure.

Tahira Bhatti-McClure.

Later that day, Dana Ortiz (VP Brand Marketing, Syfy/NBC Universal Entertainment) in New York sends an email to Nancy Webster, Executive Director of BBPC, reminding her of “the viral campaign expressing extreme concern over the Mickey Rooney character” they discussed in person “a couple weeks ago.”  Ortiz asks for details of what Webster’s going to say at the screening and offers suggestions from NBC’s affinity groups.

July 28-Webster says she was going to acknowledge Liang’s group that asked them not to show the film but that her organization decided to not censor it but accept it as “a product of its time.”  In her email, she includes the response she wrote to Liang where she noted likewise imperfections in works like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice. “We agree with your concerns. We do not dispute that Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is indefensible and offensive… We are not celebrating the overt racism in Breakfast at Tiffany’s by presenting or viewing it. Instead, by watching it, we endeavor not to ignore even the regrettable parts of our history. To ignore would be to forget. And if we forget, this vile bigotry may invade our consciences yet again. We believe censorship of art and literature is a misguided and futile attempt to erase the sins of our past.” Webster offered the name and contact for the park’s operations manager for a permit in case Liang wanted to hold a protest on the site.

Later that day, Bhatti-McClure emails Aoki that she spoke to Webster, who was “willing to show the reel that MANAA has included in the Centennial release.”  Mark Young, who’d conducted the interviews for the piece, tells Aoki his producer/brother Eric Young is willing to put together an edited version and mail it to the BBPC.

August 1-Aoki emails Liang, updating her on the situation and asking her if she’s OK with the plan.

August 2-Liang says this “sounds better than what was offered earlier by the BBPC. We’ve organized a competing screening of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which features the scene of him walking out on Breakfast at Tiffany’s and will be making the rounds with press shortly. But feel free to put Tahira in touch any time.”

Later that day-Angela Harris (Manager, FP&A for Emerging Networks/NBC) in New York emails Aoki saying Emilie Bunnell (International Production Coordinator, NBC Universal-Syfy) in New York was going to edit the piece that day, so Eric Young doesn’t have to do it.  Harris says the piece would have to be no more than five minutes and the finished edit delivered by Friday,

August 5th. August 3-Harris sends Aoki and Young an edited version of the commentary track, asking for feedback.  Aoki gives detailed instructions of what to include so that not only would the subject of yellowface be covered, but historic portrayals of Asian Americans including positive ones like George Takei as Sulu in “Star Trek.”  By the next day, Webster forwards the remarks she intends to make at the screening to Aoki and Liang to ensure they meet with their approval: “I would like to say a few words about tonight’s feature film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  In addition to it’s [sic] well-loved and acclaimed performances by Patricia Neal, George Peppard, and most notably Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s contains one performance that none of us can love. Mickey Rooney’s grossly stereotypical portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, while a product of an era in Hollywood that is for the most part behind us, nonetheless remains indefensible and offensive. I would like to thank and acknowledge those of you who have reached out to the Conservancy with your concerns and brought this to our attention. “With that, I’m pleased tonight that we will be screening a brief documentary by Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which looks at Mr. Yunioshi and the portrayal of Asian Americans in popular films.  Thank you for joining us tonight for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a classic film which contains some of the best of American movie-making. And some of the worst.”

August 10-Aoki puts Bhatti-Mcclure in touch with JK Yamamoto of the Rafu Shimpo:  “As I said, I just wanted to give SyFy and Nancy credit for making a positive out of a tense situation with the showing of B@T.  It’s a good lesson for all, and I appreiate [sic] the work you guys put into the edited 5 minute version.”

August 11-Harris sends Aoki the edited DVD for use in the future.


August 12- The day after the screening, Alison Hughes of BBPC emails Aoki and the NBC executives reporting, “We had an enormous crowd (around 8,000 people!) and no protestors.  It was a perfect evening.  Thanks for all of your help in securing and editing the MANAA video.”


Beverly Hills screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: 

Breakfast-At-Tiffanys-poster_60s drawring

While all of this was going on, on July 27th, Aoki learns from a reporter that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to showcase a new digital restoration of Breakfast at Tiffany’s “in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary” on July 29th at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

July 28-Aoki speaks to Natalie Kojen of the Academy Communications Department, who asks him to put his concerns in writing.  He emails her a letter:  “While we understand it’s a classic film, we fear that putting your stamp of approval on a movie which includes a white actor using prosthetic make-up to look Asian (yellow-face), sends the wrong message to the industry and public in general—that this is OK and even funny.  Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of the buffoonish Mr. Yunioshi has been a thorn in our side since it came out.  If black-face has long been considered offensive, why shouldn’t the industry regard yellow-face the same way?

“I’m not sure if the academy has ever screened Birth of a Nation, but it’s a similar situation:  It was a well-made film, but it stereotyped a minority group (African Americans), and in this case, made the Ku Klux Klan look like heroes.

“In the past, various cities (Sacramento, San Jose) have held public screenings of Tiffany’s, and organizations have objected to city funds being used to promote something which has caused great anguish to the Asian American community.  The Academy screening it without any educational component would be irresponsible and more harmful because of the prestige of its organization.  We offer a solution.”

Aoki suggests using the DVD commentary track (“Mr. Yunioshi:  An Asian Perspective”).  “The first 4 minutes and 35 seconds directly addresses the controversy, and we would appreciate it if you would consider screening it tomorrow night ahead of the movie itself during introductory remarks.  It is a concise way of addressing the issue and educating your audience about the troublesome aspect of an otherwise great film and not mislead them into believing the academy condones yellow-face and stereotyping (no matter how long ago it was practiced) which only serves to insult and ridicule Asian Americans.”

Aoki mentions BBPC agreeing to do the same at their showing of the film on August 11th.  “We hope you’ll do the same for both tomorrow night’s screening and the one planned for August 8 in New York.”

July 29-Leslie Unger, Director of Communications, emails Aoki that while “we won’t be able to screen the DVD segment you graciously offered, in both Los Angeles and New York the Academy representatives introducing the film will take a moment to address the unfortunate stereotyping depicted in this otherwise wonderful movie, thus making sure the audience is informed and has the appropriate context.”

August 4-Aoki emails Unger a friendly reminder about getting him the recording of the comments made about “Breakfast” before it was shown.

August 5-Unger says she doesn’t have access to the recording but offers “a rough version of what was said in advance of the screening in Beverly Hills.” After general welcome remarks, etc.:  “There’s also one thing that’s very unfortunate about this film. It may be quite shocking to those who haven’t seen it and for those you who maybe don’t remember it, it will surprise you again.  That is the appearance of Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbor.  I want to make a point of mentioning this because it is very much along the lines of seeing a great musical performer, like Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire, doing a performance in black face.  It has a similar kind of offensiveness.  So it’s a real issue in terms of presenting the film.  There are still a lot of wonderful things about it, but it is important to make note of this unfortunate element before we go on with the screening.”

August 25th edition of the Rafu Shimpo- J.K. Yamamoto covers the controversy (“Disclaimers Precede Tiffany’s Screenings in L.A., N.Y.”).   He notes that throughout the years, film critics have condemned the character and that both the July 29 Beverly Hills and August. 8 New York City events were sold out.

Read the full article

Aoki says:  “From what we understand of what was said, it was a good statement. MANAA wants to thank the Academy for being sensitive enough to handle the situation quickly and for informing its audience that while Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic film, it’s also a classic example of how NOT to portray Asian people.” Of the Aug. 11 Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy screening, Yamamoto writes:  “The local press ran a number of articles about documentary filmmaker Ursula Liang’s petition against the film, with numerous commentators voicing their opinions. “Initially, BBPC Executive Director Nancy Webster told the Brooklyn Paper that she wanted to address those concerns but hadn’t decided how. ‘We appreciate hearing people’s views about our programming, whether they are critical or supportive,’ she said. ‘We trust our audience to use their own judgment about what is appropriate for their families.’ “BBPC was not so cooperative in the beginning, Liang recalled. ‘A friend had already initiated a conversation with the BBPC about the screening. They weren’t willing to engage in a dialogue and at a point didn’t respond to him at all. I asked him for an update weeks later and there was none, so I thought it was time to take some sort of action to make them consider our point of view.’ “’I was particularly put off by the BBPC’s lack of willingness to dialogue on an issue that I thought was very black-and-white to communities that think about diversity and cultural sensitivity. To us, this is a textbook example of old Hollywood racism.’”

About the Author



Be the first to comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.