Was ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ a Racist Movie?

Stephen Magagnini, Sacramento Bee, August 22, 2008

Is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—the lighthearted 1961 classic starring Audrey Hepburn—a racist film that perpetuates negative Asian stereotypes?

Asian American activists think so, and Sacramento Vice Mayor Steve Cohn agrees—he plans to bleep out offensive scenes when he shows the film in his district Saturday.

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In the movie, Mickey Rooney plays Mr. Yunioshi, the bumbling, cantankerous upstairs neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s character, country girl turned socialite Holly Golightly.

Rooney’s character “conjures all the requisite ‘Jap’ stereotypes: grotesque buckteeth, thick-rimmed glasses, unforgivable ‘Asian’ accent,” wrote Dr. Christina Fa of San Francisco-based Asian American Media Watch in a letter to Cohn.

Fa, a longtime Sacramento resident, called the film “arguably the most racist anti-Asian film in American cinematic history” and asked it be canceled. The movie won two Academy Awards for its music.

CAPITAL (Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy and Leadership), an umbrella group for more than 90 local organizations, joined Fa in asking Cohn and the rest of the City Council not to show a film that perpetuates “offensive, derogatory and hateful racial stereotypes detrimental and destructive to our society.”

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Cohn confessed he hasn’t seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in decades and didn’t recall the offensive content.

“My first choice was try and switch movies,” he said. “Unfortunately we were unable to do that since the film was already mailed out from the distribution company we contracted with in Illinois.”

After talking with CAPITAL legal counsel Jerry Chong, Cohn decided to delete the main scene featuring Mr. Yunioshi and use it as a teaching moment.

“I know I could take some flak for censorship,” Cohn said, “but it’s an educational opportunity, and that’s how we plan to handle it.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee, who is Chinese American, said Thursday he was unaware of the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” brouhaha.

He said he’s OK viewing older films that may include white actors playing Asians.

“I don’t have any problem going back and looking at historic movies,” said Yee, who compared it to Charlie Chan movies, which aren’t socially acceptable when viewed through a modern lens.

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Cohn’s decision to issue a public disclaimer “and bring it to people’s attention” makes sense, Chong said.

“You don’t teach people things by keeping everything quiet,” he said. “A lot of young people are not aware of these stereotypes and don’t even think they’re offensive. But it’s particularly offensive to those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s—they were used to insult and taunt us while we were at school.”

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