Tim Burton was recently asked about why his upcoming fantasy film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is so white. The film stars Eva Green as the titular overseer of a very strange orphanage, Asa Buttefield as the central protagonist of a YA fantasy, and a large cast of teens with special powers, all of whom are played by white actors. The only notable character of color is the villain, Barron, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Rachel Simon, at Bustle, asked this question. He responded thus:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding on-screen 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.”
This answer is dubious and, frankly, disquieting. Burton’s comments have caused some consternation from his fans. The swiftest way to identify the myriad of feelings about any matter is follow the reaction on Twitter and this matter doesn’t disappoint. Some, like YA author Heidi Heilig have gone for a whole-sale rejection of Burton, others have decried the realization that one of their favorite offbeat directors might harbor racism.
Then there’s the reaction from writer Mikki Kendal, who calls out a specific problem in Tim Burton’s cinematic vision, and one that merits further consideration.
Tim Burton really thinks weird only comes in white people. I don't even look at him for diversity.
— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) September 29, 2016
Tim Burton is a director of white fantasy films. This is not to say that his films are about “white experiences.” White people don’t have scissorhands, for example. But his movies exist in worlds that are determinedly the result of white imagination.
In this, Burton represents a common problem among cinema’s most celebrated fantasy storytellers, and it is one that Kendall nails in her tweet: the fantasy of white artists too often makes room only for white humanity. The notion of diversity in these stories falls purely into metaphor. Racial difference is ignored, in favor of fictional diversity.
This problem has always existed. And for most of film history, an all white-cast in a fantasy film has been able to avoid scrutiny because thematic diversity at the fantasy level takes center stage. It’s very easy to see how that works in Burton’s filmography. A beloved movie like Edward Scissorhands hits hard on themes of acceptance and difference. But the film is about whether a white suburban community can find it in their heart to accept a white weirdo.
As Rachel Simon, in her Bustle piece, notes Burton has directed 36 movies and that Jackson’s role in Miss Peregrine is the first time he has ever cast a black actor in a leading role.
The issue spans well beyond Burton, though. There are no actors of color in the central cast of The Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings has two central characters who represent prejudice and racial divide: one is a white elf and the other is a white dwarf. The Fellowship, the heroes, the villains in LOTR, any character who has human skin in part, is played by a white actor. Google Cast of Lord of the Rings and you will see this:
Two actors of color, Lawrence Melkare and Sala Baker. Both appear in full make-up or armor as villains, and die. It’s hard to imagine a world as populous as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings having no space for actors of color. The defense for this is not hard to come by. Josh Tyler at Cinema Blend made it when the film was released: “There’s nothing to complain about, because you see, here’s the thing about Tolkien’s books: He wrote them to be a sort of fantastical, mythological history for England, a region which was in the past populated almost entirely by those super-pale Caucasians.”
That answer may be sufficient for some, but perhaps it’s also worth asking why a story that was based on the British Isles in the 1950s must maintain the racial homogeny of the source material.
This lack of racial diversity follows Jackson’s other films, including The Hobbit Trilogy and King Kong, which has only one significant actor of color, Evan Parke’s Hayes, mentor to Jamie Bell first mate of the ship that carries the film crew to Skull Island before Kong throws him against a wall and kills him.
The examples continue. Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer builds a rich horror fantasy from the metaphorical storytelling of Buffy’s teenage and young adult years in a world of vampires and monsters. But it too falls into a trap of metaphorical diversity; the show contains no central characters of color, and only occasionally features guest appearances by actors of color. The same google experiment works for Buffy. A rich world running 144 episodes, and only a few notable actor of color:
Absent from this is season 7’s Kennedy, played by Iyari Limon, and the terrific vampire Mr. Trick, played by K. Todd Freeman in the show’s third season. Mr. Trick, unfortunately, only makes it four episodes before he is dusted. Whedon’s lack of racial diversity has long plagued him, fairly or unfairly–Angel does have an African-American lead in J. August Richards; Firefly, too stars Gina Torres– but like his fellow white fantasists, the problem is worth calling out.
The reflexive impulse to substitute racial diversity for metaphorical diversity provides an opportunity to better understand what diversity means to decision-makers in Hollywood. The writer and directors on the creative side, but also the producers, casting directors, studio reps and marketers who will be selling a picture. There are changing refrains about why white actors dominate our pictures; recently the case has been made that foreign markets want white stars instead of black, for example, a dubious claim at best.
But regardless of any defense the industry might muster, the substitution of racial diversity for metaphorical diversity must be seen for what it is: a failure of imagination. It is diversity as it exists in the fantasy of white storytellers, not in reality. Finding racial diversity in films comes only by casting racially diverse actors. There’s no way to make up for a racially diverse cast.
Metaphorical diversity is powerful and necessary part of telling fantasy stories. It has always been part of fiction and will never stop being fun, instructive and central to our stories. It provides mythic resonance, a connecting fluidity between cultures and epochs. But it is not a substitute for racial diversity.
Cultural equity, racial equity, these are values that are expressed in our fantasy stories. Or, more accurately, they are values that are too absent from our fantasy stories. That Tim Burton can make four decades of fantasy films about weirdos and eclectics, make fantasy animation family films and quirky off-beat teen pictures and adult fantasy horror without ever casting a character of color in a lead role is a sign that cultural and racial equity are simply not a valued part of his work, or the people who are supporting his work.
Until it is, for all of Hollywood, racial equality will evade our cinemas.