Is Rooney’s “Racist” Turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Appropriate for Park Film Fest?

Audrey Hepburn in a “classic” film adapted from a novella written by former 70 Willow Street resident Truman Capote surely seems appropriate for this year’s Movies with a View in  Brooklyn Bridge Park.  That is, unless you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s — which topped Complex Magazine’s list of the 50 Most Racist Movies ever made.

The 1961 Blake Edwards film has been tagged as racist by many due to Mickey Rooney’s “hilarious” portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, Holly Golightly’s neighbor.  Rooney, playing a Japanese man redefined racist stereotypes in film by hamming  it up with fake buckteeth while bending every “L” in to an “R” .

In 2008, the film was taken off the slate of a festival in Sacramento, California after Asian-Americans protested.  Dr. Christina Fa of  Asian American Media Watch called it “arguably the most racist anti-Asian film in American cinematic history.”

As for Rooney, he thinks this is all a big misunderstanding.   During the controversy in 2008, he was interviewed by the Sacramento Bee:

“It breaks my heart. Blake Edwards, who directed the picture, wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it.”Rooney, who occasionally shows the Mr. Yunioshi clip as part of his traveling stage show, added, that “Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world people say, ‘God, you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey you were out of this world.’ “Rooney said he loves everybody, and his life is a testament to that. “I was born in Brooklyn, delivered by a Chinese doctor on a table in a boarding house on September 23, 1920,” he said. “I came from a poor family, my father was from Glasgow, Scotland, my mother’s brothers were brakemen on the railroad, we didn’t have anything but mush for breakfast.”He said he won a Bronze Star in World War II serving with Japanese-American and Chinese-American soldiers battling the Nazis in Europe.Rooney’s wife Jan, who said they were married in Hong Kong and love Chinese art, food, culture and medicine, said the role was meant to be fun. “It’s terribly sad and I feel bad for the people taking offense,” she said.Rooney said that if he’d known people would have been so offended, “I wouldn’t have done it.””Those that didn’t like it, I forgive them and God bless America,” he said. “God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them and let’s have peace.”

What do you think? Should the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy yank the flick from its schedule?

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  • Lou

    I hope they show it. Its a great movie and it would be a shame to have it removed for Rooney’s part. I get it. Some people are offended by the over the top caricature of the bucktoothed japanese person. I wonder if they’d ban Sixteen Candles for the portrayal of Long Duck Dong. He was played by an Asian actor, though, so maybe its okay…

  • Lou Howort

    Of course Rooney’s portrayal is racist but it’s necessary to look at it in the context of the times. The movie was made in 1961 just 15 years after the end of World War II. Anti-Japanese sentiment in the US was still high. During the war, the Japanese were called “geeks”, a way to de-humanize them, which made it easier for the US government to drop 2 atom bombs on Japan. Rooney’s racist portrayal reflected these realities. That’s why many people who saw the movie then thought he was funny. Fifty years later, a lot has changed. Rooney’s portrayal is seen as obviously offensive and racist.

    So, should the movie be shown? Yes, but I think that before it starts someone should address the audience and use the moment as an educational opportunity to 1- warn them about Rooney’s offensive and racist performance; and 2- explain the context of the time in which it was made.

    In order to connect the demonizing of a racial or ethnic group, religion or culture to the present time I would also point out how in the US, Muslims have been similarly demonized by many people. A substantial number of people here think that all Muslims are terrorists. This is the kind of thinking that may lead people to deny the humanity of the vast majority of Muslims and lead to portraying them negatively as Rooney did. They are already being victimized by ethnic profiling by federal and local police enforcement agencies. Perhaps an educational discussion of this sort will contribute to more people opposing the victimization of the vast majority of innocent, law abiding Muslims residing in the U.S. by law enforcement agencies.

  • AEB

    Is it racist? Of course. Is it crude, tired,, and unfunny? Yes. Do we need lengthy explanations of why it shouldn’t have been? I don’t think so.

    Racism is perhaps THE American tragedy. No one has to love everyone, nor should they. But we must be ever-vigilant not to act out whatever bias we feel lest it limit others’ freedom.

  • PierrepontSkin

    It’s definitely racist, but it’s also part of an American classic. They should definitely show it. I mean, they showed The Big Lebowski last summer. That movie uses the word “f**k” 260 times…and those speakers down there are pretty loud.

  • misterbones

    Seriously? If we’re going to start debating Mickey Rooney’s performance, I guess the following depictions are also fair game:

    — Woody Allen’s pedophile in “Manhattan”
    — Lancaster’s misogynist in “Sweet Smell”
    — Jeffrey Wright’s junkie in “Basquiat”
    — Cassavetes as a Satanist in “Rosemary’s Baby”

    Point is, this isn’t a conversation worth having. Now, if you wanna go a few rounds on the artistic merits of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — I think it’s pretty awful — let’s do it.

  • AEB

    I’m trying to fathom what playing a pedophile, misogynist, junkie, or satanist has to do with creating a characterization that is racist.

    Are you arguing that playing those roles defames pedophiles, misogynists, junkies, etc.

    But, yes, except for the pleasure of watching Ms. Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is bowdlerized bull-do.

  • Hicks St Guy

    @ Lou H, read the bestseller Unbroken, it will inform you in a more complete manner why the a-bombs were the only way to end the Japanese aggression, and save millions of lives.

  • Randernyc

    Should we put all the movies that might be shown at the Park Film fest through a similar “discriminatory filter?” Who will be the judge? Will there be a rating system such as 1-10 with anything above 6 becomes a “no-show/”

    Or, should we put it to a vote to the Brooklyn Japanese community who really have the final “say” in the matter?

    Gimme a break!!!!

  • Steve R

    (Paraphrasing) “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”. Racism is an inarguable part of our past, and it is also an unfortunate part of our present. If we erase from our memory the pain and suffering caused by racism, it will inevitably reoccur. The fact that today we recognize it in this film for what it is, and we are abhorred by it, is reason enough to not censure or cancel the film.

  • Billy Reno

    Fingers crossed they show “The Jazz Singer” in the future.

  • x

    yeah we should just show Disney movies

  • Dave

    I made the unfortunate decision of watching the film for the first time with a bunch of students from my ESL class. All of them were Asian and several were Japanese. I had never seen Rooney’s performance before, and it made me more than a little uncomfortable. It did make for some lively discussion though. But I couldn’t understand any of it because Asian people can’t speak English very well. Mostly due to their giant beaver teeth.

  • Lou

    Dave, your comment made me LOL.

    Do we think we could finally get Song of the South screened again? I had to buy it for my father-in-law from France a few years ago because Disney has scrubbed that movie from the face of the Earth. Or maybe the cut of fantasia where the black centaurs shine the hooves of the white centaurs?

  • Eddy de Lectron

    @ AEB, Racism is ubiquitous throughout the world. calling it “The American tragedy” is shortsighted. However, I do agree with the rest of your statement.

  • AEB

    Eddy, did we, a relatively new country, not have institutionalized slavery, the effects of which have not yet been fully extinguished?

  • Eddy de Lectron

    I disagree, slavery was institutionalized here long before we became a country. The impetus for slavery was economic not racist. As a new country we ultimately moved to abolish slavery.

    Yes, the legacy of slavery still has al lasting negative effect here and that may manifest itself in racist actions. Perhaps one might say, Slavery is the American tragedy.

  • AEB

    Eddy, it’s difficult for me to separate the implicit racism of American slavery–admittedly, bigotry with a long past–from economic justifications for it.

    In any case, to do so is, in my opinion, academic-certainly so in terms of its legacy.

  • Mongo The Lloyd

    they should show the movie while someone reads huck finn in the background

  • http://Building Jeffrey J Smith

    This is AMAZING even in this mindless age of rain puddle deep thinking that people would be considering a subject like this.

    First of all, you have to consider the world this film is a product of.
    You sure do…in the world (and the New York) which produced this film I could walk unmolested from Coney Island to the Bronx, You could ride the Subway 24 hrs a day without fear, You could leave
    your door open for air or sleep on a roof on a hot summer night without a problem.

    I had flocks of friends from many backgrounds. We had a lot of
    fun, we has lots of fights OFTEN with strong ethnic and racial
    ” comments”. It was mean, stuff that would cause heart attacks today, it was often funny. The next day it was all forgotton and we were friends back listening to Alan Freed or Cousin Brucie.

    This movie and its personnel, Audrey, Mickey and Mr peppard
    were part of and a product of a vastly more functional New York and a FAR better run America.

    Mickey Rooney is the great social danger? The people who think that all got thier social and politicalk formations in the late 1960’s or early 70’s with att the other disasterious social effects of that

    I tell you what…let’s say you asked the average American, White, Black, Asian, green out of a flying saucer, whatever, that if they could have all the technical advances of today and especially the medical health technology of today but could take that and be transported back to the social conditions before say 1966?
    What do you think would happen? The only people left in this time would be (UGH) PC types.

    Think about it, if YOU could transport back to 1961 without losing todays technology would YOU stay here?

    (We should really have a filter so that anyone who actuiallythinks America is a better society after say 1967 could not transport back.)

    Mickey Rooney is the great danger you shouldbe concerned about?….Amazing

  • Rocky Wahine

    The movie is racist and hurtful. I will not go to the movie, nor support any of the sponsors connected with the movie. If there is any public money supporting this event, you can be sure I will be telling my friends (who vote) about this. For those who say that Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a classic movie, why don’t you show Birth of A Nation at time. It is time to retire this movie.

  • http://Building Jeffrey J Smith


  • Peter

    The pharmacist on “Family Guy” is a caricature.

    So is Scrooge McDuck.

    Everyone should lighten the f*ck up.

  • Kane Yee

    “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is truly one of our film classics BUT the Mr. Yunioshi character is just plain wrong. It insults and harms millions of Asian Americans. The negative portrayal casts an ugly cloud over Asian American children who frequently have to face similar negative stereotypes that tell them they are ugly, unable to speak proper English, and are not graceful and athletic.

    In the past, I have even heard that Micky Rooney has apologized for his role. He apparently has a poor memory if his 2008 interview was the first time that he ever heard of complaints (obviously, complaints about this film being racist have been around since 1961). The film’s producer’s has even apologized for this character.

    The bottom line is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” should not be shown in such a public venue, i.e. a free one that is set up for pure entertainment value. It should never again embarrass and hurt an important and growing part of this nation’s people.

  • Jeffrey J Smith

    This is the begining of what they already have in Canada and England…strong limits on Free Speech.

    In the British “commenwealth” government controls
    what can be said in the public square.

    “debates” like this are for ONE reason…to acclimate
    Americans to the coming contols on speech.