Tim Burton’s White Casts Are Not Peculiar – They’re Standard

I’m tired of watching so many movies with white people in them.

Wait. No, that’s not quite right.

I’m tired of a lack of racial diversity in my movies.

Take, for example, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) directed by Tim Burton. You might know Burton from Edward Scissorhands (1990), Charlie and Chocolate Factory (2005), or A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Personally, I really enjoyed his various twists on Batman in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). You may also know how him from a recent interview  with Bustle when he attempted to defend the mostly white cast of the Miss Peregrine movie.

I bring up Burton not just because he’s a recent example, but also because he manages to touch on the casual racism that is endemic to Hollywood and major motion pictures. In his interview, Burton says,

“Things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”

While his reasoning is absolutely horrible, as noted here, here, and several other places online, it’s the last bit of his statement that grabs my attention.

It’s interesting that Burton brings up blaxploitation, a genre of movie that originally catered to black urban audiences. They featured casts of primarily black actors and soundtracks composed mostly of soul music and funk. Think Shaft or Foxy Brown. The genre is complicated. On the one hand, it featured black people in starring roles. On the other, it also tended to reinforce negative stereotypes about black people. The latter problem is why the genre no longer exists as it did in the 1970s.

Burton argues that because he didn’t feel that there should be more white people in blaxploitation movies, a genre primarily geared to black audiences, that it’s acceptable for him to have a primarily white cast because “things either call for things, or they don’t.” And Mr. Burton’s fantasy worlds apparently don’t call for black or brown people.

Except, of course, as villains.

Burton’s argument brings up the issue of whitewashing, particularly now that comic book worlds are attempting to diversify their characters, turning characters that were white (or men) into people of color (or women). I think these kinds of changes are fantastic. There’s no literally no reason for 100% of the X-Men or Justice League to be white and these monochromatic casts are getting harder and harder to defend. However, we still have issues like casting for Ghost in the Shell and for The Lone Ranger, both of which feature a white actor playing a character of color, washing over the scraps of representation people of color have been given.

Whitewashing is more problematic than “color correcting.” The former removes representation, the latter adjusts it. Let’s pretend that racial diversity in Hollywood is a pie. The pie has been cut into ten even slices. White actors have eight of those slices. The other two slices have to be shared by Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American actors. Whitewashing would be taking one of those two remaining slices away. Its opposite would be giving more pie to actors of color, increasing their representation. Of course, this analogy is quite silly. Really, actors of color only have half a slice.

No one should be surprised by Burton’s casual dismissal of actors of color. He’s part of the same institution that couldn’t even muster one non-white nomination for an Oscar.

What I hope Burton and other directors see is that if their imaginary worlds do not include people of color then their worlds are defective. If their world doesn’t “call” for a person of color, then it also doesn’t “call” for a white person. Diversity isn’t something that just happens. If it did, award ceremonies hosted by BET and ALMA wouldn’t need to exist. Diversity is something that must be consciously chosen. While I’ve enjoyed Burton’s previous work, I’ll be skipping his current project. I’m afraid it’s just too peculiar for me.

View Comment (1)
  • I’m white-black Caribbean and I honestly don’t understand why there being an all-white cast (PLUS SAMUEL L JACKSON) is such an issue. Did it suddenly make the plot terrible? Did it turn the story into a horrific tale of racism? No.
    I understand that you’re upset that it wasn’t very diverse, but that’s life. There are a lot of white people in America, England, and the setting of the movie, Wales. It’s gonna be the majority. And that’s just something that will remain for a long time.
    Talk to me if I’ve missed something that will change my opinion on this.

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