2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Picture Character’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Picture Character
The inventor of emoji, Shigetaka Kurita, draws the original smiley face emoji in “Picture Character” (Photo by David Allen)

“Picture Character”

Directed by Martha Shane and Ian Cheney

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

A documentary about emojis and emoji culture deserves a more interesting title than “Picture Character,” but what this movie lacks in name creativity, it makes up for in informative content. Emoji (which means “picture character” in Japanese) is the computer symbol used to convey a word or emotion. Emojis have been called the modern-equivalent of Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphic and Chinese pictographs. Using emojis as shorthand language makes people creative (according to emoji supporters) or makes people lazy (according to emoji critics). Curiously, “Picture Character” doesn’t mention the 2017 critically panned animated film “The Emoji Movie.” Maybe it’s because “The Emoji Movie” got such bad reviews that it gave emoji culture a bad name.

Shigetaka Kurita, the Japanese man credited with inventing emojis (his first emoji was a smiley face), is interviewed in the movie. Other people interviewed in the film include emoji pop-culture enthusiasts Jeremy Burge (an emoji historian), Tyler Schnoebelen (a linguist whose specialty is computer-based language) and Brooklyn Queen, a young rapper whose “Emoji” video went viral in 2017.

Luckily, “Picture Character” isn’t a documentary that just strings together a bunch of interviews about people talking about emojis. The movie also takes a fascinating look into the process of getting a new emoji approved by the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC), a mysterious group based in California’s Silicon Valley that decides which emojis will be available to the world’s computers and smartphones. “Picture Character” follows the journey of three emojis that are seeking approval from UTC: a hijab emoji created by a Muslim teenage girl in Germany; a maté emoji created by Argentine women who wanted a symbol for the popular South American caffeinated drink; and a menstruation emoji from a feminist non-profit group in the United Kingdom.

The UTC is described in the movie as consisting of mostly “white men” who are from the “old guard” of Silicon Valley. One of the earliest problems that had to be addressed in emoji culture was that early emojis depicting humans showed only Caucasians. Changes were not made until a black businesswoman from Texas named Katrina Parrott lobbied the UTC to have emojis of different skin tones to represent other races. The different emoji skin tones were later used by corporate tech giants Apple and Google.

UTC chair Lisa Moore and former UTC chair Mark Davis are among those interviewed for the documentary. They talk about the challenges and pressures they feel about adding new emojis. They both agree that making the emoji library too big would ruin the integrity of emojis. They also acknowledge that the emoji approval process still needs progress when it comes to being more inclusive of cultures that are outside of an Anglo or male standard. The group behind the possible menstruation emoji lament the fact that this natural biological function of females is considered too taboo for the UTC, but the UTC has approved several emojis for excrement.

“Picture Character” comes the conclusion that emojis won’t completely replace written or spoken language, but with more people preferring to communicate by text or email instead of talking over the phone, emojis have become increasingly important to the world’s culture, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.