Tim Burton and the Peculiar Limits of the White Racist Imagination

By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20299046

My son and I love going to the movies. Rarely a weekend passes when we aren’t cuddled up in the back row munching popcorn. A few months ago while on one of regular movie dates, I first saw the trailer for¬†Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Before seeing the trailer, I had never heard of the film or the novel it’s based on, but from what I gleaned from the two-minute¬†preview, the movie tells the story of children with supernatural powers.

Or rather, the movie tells the story of white children with supernatural powers.

 

 

Per usual, the wild imagination of a white filmmaker stops short of imagining anything beyond alabaster skin. I suppose I shouldn’t¬†be surprised that¬†all of the children in a movie set on a remote Welsh island are white.¬†After all, it’s certainly more conceivable¬†that one would encounter a child who can fly in Wales than it is that one would encounter a Black child in Wales, despite the fact that as of 2009, Black people made up 0.6% of the population of Wales while those with the ability to fly¬†made up a mind-blowing 0%. ¬†I personally would be more shocked to¬†see a child of Indian, Chinese or other Asian descent in Wales, even though Asians make up 2.6% of the Welsh population, than I would a ¬†child with a fully functioning mouth in the back of her head.

Certainly, films about the supernatural or futuristic wouldn’t be as believable if they purposely and purposefully casted actors of color. Even though audiences are enthralled with with fantasies of magic, wizardry,¬†invincibility and¬†intergalactic battle, the one thing they can’t fathom is non-white people. At least, that’s the word as told by¬†Miss Peregrine¬†director Tim Burton.

When asked why his idea of diversity is casting white people whose skin tones range from porcelain to ivory, Burton told Bustle:

“Nowadays, people are talking about it more … things either call for things, or they don‚Äôt. I remember back when I was a child watching¬†The¬†Brady¬†Bunch¬†and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let‚Äôs 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‚Äôs great.’ I didn‚Äôt go like, ‘OK, there should be more white people in these movies.'”

There you have it. Clearly, Burton has been aware that there is no practical use for non-white characters in media for more than 40 years, ever since Mike, Carol and the gang had to share camera time with the melanated. And because Tim has never been a jive turkey, he appreciated watching Sheba Baby and Shaft stick it to the man, basking in the glory of all those foxy chocolate mamas without worrying about when a white person was going to come on screen. No, Tim Burton is not one to push Black and brown people on his audiences for the sake of being politically correct. We need more directors unwilling to comprise the integrity and authenticity of the script by contorting and customizing it to fit non-white actors.

Burton is obviously committed to staying true to the story unless casting a non-white¬†character makes sense. Enter the very Black Samuel L. Jackson as “the leader of a group of creatures who aim to murder children with supernatural abilities.” It¬†goes without saying a role¬†in which the character’s sole¬†purpose is an obsession with pursuing and killing innocent white people is one of those “things” that call for things, and this time, that “thing”¬†is a Black man famous for his profane vocabulary rivaling that of a¬†drunken sailor who stubbed his toe while having an orgasm. And that’s no shade to Jackson who in the same article, when questioned about what he thought of being the only non-white character in the movie — unfairly so, since he’s not the fucking casting director, producer, writer or director of the movie — responded that he “may have been the first¬†…¬†or the most prominent in that particular way, but it happens the way it happens.”

Sigh. Is there no limit to white people’s audacious dismissals of interrogations into their reasoning for seeing non-white people as nothing more than props¬†or¬†one-dimensional caricatures of their racist stereotypical conceptions? Tim Burton is a filmmaker¬†who can imagine a man having hands made of fully-functioning scissors, an obnoxious ghost who has his head shrunken¬†and a headless horseman, yet seeking out children of color to play some of the characters in a completely fictional and fantastic narrative he was charged with bringing to life is absurd to him. Intentionally casting to reflect the diversity of the world population is somehow so far-fetched that it’s scoffed off with irrelevant and contemptuous references to television and film more than four decades ago.

But honestly, Burton is only reflecting the attitudes white audiences enable and demand. Who can forget when Hunger Games fans¬†felt that casting Amandla Sternberg as Rue¬† “ruined the movie”¬†— even though¬†the character¬†is¬†described as having “dark skin” in the novel? Remember¬†the way the dudebros lost their shit when John Boyega was cast as Fin in¬†Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

The unyielding cowardly racism of white people in fantasy circles is well documented. Their warped sense of entitlement determines that these spaces, where 9-foot furry beasts, morphing superheroes¬†and even children with he power of invisibility exist but kinky hair and brown skin are unthinkable, belong to them exclusively.¬†¬†Any¬†non-white person’s presence in that space is both intrusive and invasive (ironic since white people have yet to demonstrate an ability to respect the exclusivity of non-white real and cyber spaces).

The fact is that white people see these stories of the impossible as a way to escape reality, one that includes the inconveniences of Black and brown people who have the nerve to demand fair treatment. Our expectation that for all we pour into this world, we should see ourselves reflected on screen in diverse, complex and starring roles is a more difficult stretch of their imagination than monsters, aliens and mutants. So cringeworthy is the concept that people who spend their days on Twitter mocking Black people who are triggered by the never-ending supply of videos of Black people being executed, their evenings hurling anti-immigrant slurs and threats of deportation at non-white

Latinx, and¬†their nights taunting Arab muslims with anti-Islam “jokes” take to social media to express their outrage anytime a director dares show any sign of inclusion.

I guess I understand, though. They’ve dreamed of a world where they can be mystical, magical and supernatural. They’ve never dreamed of a world without white supremacy.

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