Ursula Liang vs. Breakfast at Tiffany's Screening

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy gets itself into a fight over racism

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The Players: Ursula Liang, Asian-American documentary filmmaker from the Bronx. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy is a Brooklyn organization that aims to support Brooklyn Bridge Park and provides the community with free public programming like a movie series, fitness classes, and educational activities.

The Opening Serve:  On August 11, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy plans to present Breakfast at Tiffany's as a part of their outdoor "Movies with A View" series sponsored by SyFy. Liang isn't on board with that decision due to Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi portrayal and created a petition to boycott the event. "By screening this film, the organizers are sanctioning the racism it contains, and subjecting new audiences (including children and Asian-Americans) to a minstrel show of racist ideology," she wrote on her online petition which has garnered over 200 signatures. "It's 2011. It's New York. Do we still have to fight the hostile, hurtful world of 1961 Hollywood?"

Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp's Regina Myer told the NY Post "recognize that one character in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s movie is an offensive stereotype, but this does not negate the value of the film as an American classic."

Liang isn't a fan of that terminology. "It's a bad decision to screen this film without context in a city where one in eight people is Asian American," she wrote in an e-mail to The Atlantic Wire. "When we voiced our concerns, we were told that it was a 'beloved' 'classic', and that's what we object to. That designation makes it clear who the arbiters are and how BBPC intended to present the film."

The Return Volley:  Nancy Webster, executive director of the conservancy, told the Brooklyn Paper that she hopes to address people’s concerns, but hasn’t decided how just yet. “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.” Liang isn't convinced.

"It's scheduled for a large, outdoor screening supported by public funding and a channel that has a huge Asian American following. Someone is going to get an enormous screening fee for the event," she wrote in her email. "Our voices are lost when the BBPC unequivocally honors this film and sends our tax dollars to pay for an event that discounts our opinions. We don't want to censor anything, but we don't want to support an event that discounts us."

Liang adds, "Just to be clear, because many headlines have gotten this wrong. This is not just an Asian American protest. The petition is a decidedly multi-ethnic endeavor, including White, Black, Latino, Native and Asian Americans."

What They Say They're Fighting About: The decision of a publicly funded organization to show this film.  Both sides of this spat acknowledge the Rooney portrayal to be racist.  But Liang wants a more thoughtful decision when it comes to programming. Webster says that families and audience members have the right to choose whether or not they attend the public screening.

What They're Really Fighting About: Whether or not dated racist imagery is harmful today. Liang believes that Rooney's portrayal is still harmful and hurtful. The BBPC sees the Rooney portrayal as independent of the movie's merit and a product of its time, and thinks that Rooney's Yunioshi is safe enough for a public screening.

Who's Winning Now: Draw. The support on Liang's petition is roughly at 240 as of 1:00 p.m.Thursday. She'll need higher numbers to make a dent, here. And though BBPC hasn't made the decision on "how to address people's concerns," they run the risk of coming off insensitive and ignorant, particularly the longer they wait to act.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.