I’ll start with a confession: I’m divided on Tim Burton as a director. He’s definitely talented, but even before it was cool to criticize him his filmography was hit-or-miss. Some of it, like Ed Wood and Corpse Bride, I genuinely enjoy, even considering rather brilliant. Other films, like Dark Shadows, are atrocious and make me wonder if he’s really that great. And then there are middling movies, like Burton’s take on Batman and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which aren’t “good”, but are worth the watch for how weird they are. (And yes, I don’t consider Burton’s Batman movies to be good.)
Weird as Burton’s movies are, the controversies surrounding them are even more so. Take recently, where he was interviewed by Rachel Simon of the website Bustle to promote his most-recent film, the adaptation of the 2011 novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The movie’s about a boy named Jake who finds a Harry Potter-esque school for kids with interesting, um…”peculiarities”. I don’t know what happens, having not seen it yet, but the trailer hits all the points on Burton’s checklist, right down to the almost exclusively-white cast. Since this is 2016, and being more inclusive actually matters, Simon decided to question Burton on this. To say the response was bizarre and insensitive is like saying that water is wet:
“‘Nowadays, people are talking about it more,’ he says regarding film diversity. But ‘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.’”Yeah, um…that was something that was said? *Scratches forehead*
As expected, the internet, rightfully, didn’t like this response. However, there are two elephants in the room that need addressing in response. The first is the sudden “realization” that Tim Burton is “a hack”. He’s not. Burton has always been all-over qualitatively, even when it was cool to like him. People point to his early work as untouchable, saying that he’s “stopped caring” now that he’s famous, when he had a Batman and a Mars Attacks for every Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood in his prime. The man hasn’t “lost it”, especially considering that he made Frankenweenie four years ago, he’s simply being his usual, inconsistent self.
And second, Tim Burton’s right on some level about not having diversity for the sake of it. Because that’s not really diverse, that’s tokenism. Diversity is when you cast actors and actresses to play non-traditional roles, yet still flesh them out enough that they feel relatable in some way. In contrast, tokenism is doing it for the sole sake of checkmarks in the diversity box. The former is sensible, the latter insensible. And yet, because the difference is subtle, it’s easy to conflate the two and miss the damage of tokenism.
I’ll use my most-popular blog as a base example: remember when I complained that Korrasami from Avatar: The Legend of Korra was a terrible ship? It’s because the relationship felt tacked on. Gay relationships are desperately needed in fiction, but there wasn’t any build-up, no earlier hints and no reason for it other than to appease the LGBTQ community. It was also a last-minute fan-ship that added nothing to either the story, or Korra/Asami’s characters. In short, it was a token relationship, and you can easily replace one of them with a man with little change.
So yeah, I understand where Burton is coming from. The problem is in how he said what he said and the implications of his statement. Ignoring that he’s the wrong person to comment on diversity, especially since his films are white bread-centric in spite of their eccentricities, Burton’s remarks on PC culture and not including diverse characters because it’s not appropriate are incredibly insensitive. Because there are plenty of talented actors and actresses of colour who are looking for work, and they’re always welcome additions. By constantly turning a blind eye in favour of white actors and actresses, you’re actually being racist.
But Burton’s comment about being politically correct is doubly worrying, as it looks bad on him as a person. You’d think that a man who’s spent his entire film career, particularly his early years, as “that weird dude who directs weird movies for weird people” would have a little more sympathy for marginalized groups. You’d think a man who was fired from Disney in the 80’s for thinking outside the box would think outside the box about race and representation. Yet, as this interview demonstrates, Burton is as racist as they come.
However, I think this stems from a bigger problem in Hollywood: bigotry. We’ve seen it with the “Oscars so White” controversy at last year’s Academy Awards, but it doesn’t begin or end there. Hollywood’s so openly bigoted that their decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a character who happens to be Japanese, caused huge backlash on the internet when it was announced. Hollywood’s also so bigoted that they cast Tilda Swinton, a white actress, to play a Tibetan monk in this year’s Doctor Strange to appeal to Marvel’s Chinese audience. Racism in Hollywood doesn’t stop at the “master of gothic filmmaking”, basically.
Though it doesn’t excuse Burton’s remarks either. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that talented artists can be awful people (look at Clint Eastwood), but that doesn’t mean I’ll sit back and let their behaviour slide. Because that’s not justice, that’s privilege. More specifically, that’s white privilege. That so much racist behaviour goes unchecked is actually pretty sad, especially since people of colour deserve respect. If we let Burton’s remarks slide, especially under the guise of “freedom of speech”, then we’re letting decades of the racist status quo go by unchecked. And that’s wrong.
So yes, Tim Burton was out-of-line. And while it doesn’t make him a hack, it reflects rather poorly.