Monthly Archives: September 2016

Casting, Race, and Why Tim Burton is Alarmingly Wrong

 

47294497-cached

Tim Burton. Photo: Petr Topic/SIFA/Getty Images

Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:

“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.”

“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.

By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.

If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?

unknown-1

A PR shot for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children released by Fox.

As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.

The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.

When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.

When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.

It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.

It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?

I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.

I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.

Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday. 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

Why the Hatred of Video Games is Ableist

Humans love games. Some of our earliest cultural artifacts are game pieces. The modern world has several massively lucrative industries around games. People will dump half a week’s salary into two tickets to a professional sports event (make that a whole week’s salary if you each want a beer). We take activities like cooking, fashion, singing, trivia, drinking, and even theatre and “gamify” them by creating gaming structures around them. If there’s one thing people love, it’s a way to score more points than someone else.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love games as much as the next human. But for a game-loving society, we spend an inordinate amount of time hating video games.

skyrim

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, created by Bethesda Softworks

We claim they are dangerous to developing brains, cause people to be more violent, prevent people from forming healthy human relationships, are rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, and we have the studies to “prove” it. Yet we romanticize sports and excuse its negative aspects– its shockingly high injury rate (including brain injuries); its continuous problems with sexism, racism, and homophobia;  and a culture of bullying and hazing that permeates and poisons athletics, particularly K-12 and college athletics– because we believe that games you play with your body are intrinsically, even morally, better than games you play with your mind.

Video game culture is no better than sports culture in any of those respects save injuries, but we treat it as if it is intrinsically, morally lesser, and that engaging in a game you play with your body is somehow morally superior to engaging in a game you play with your mind.

It’s an ableist position to take.

cayde-6_02_feature.png

Destiny NPC Cayde-6, voiced by actor Nathan Fillion. Destiny is created by Bungie.

We frame physical activity as the best of all possible choices for filling free time. An hour with a book or a video game is “indulgent,” but an hour of cycling or basketball is “healthy” and “making good choices.” We worship the body and what it can do, granting the highest cultural status to people with able-bodied, thin, athletic bodies. We even describe them using the word “fit,” as if people who are disabled, fat, or unathletic are “unfit.”

Because our culture worships the body and ignores– even denigrates— the mind, we’ve elevated physical games over every other kind of game and created a vast cultural mythology around pretending physical games are moral and good and healthy while video games are destructive, bad, and unhealthy.  People whose bodies allow them to play physical games have access to a level of cultural privilege denied to those who cannot. People whose bodies cannot play physical games but who still want to game have more options open to them than ever before, yet all of them are considered morally inferior to physical games.

pride-demon

Facing off against a pride demon in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The Dragon Age series is created by Bioware.

But video games are violent! So are sports. The difference between violence in video games and violence in sports is that physical violence in video games is pretend and physical violence in sports is real. Violence during games is an ongoing problem at all levels of athletics. Sports has immense bullying problems; sports fans are notoriously violent during victories, losses, and even just in the stands. Even little league parents get violent. Off the field, college athletes are more likely to commit sexual assault than other students and less likely to be convicted.

If you wish to extend “violence” to harassment and bullying, and I absolutely do, it’s undeniable there are violent aspects in video game culture, but sports culture is no better; in fact, statistically speaking, it’s clearly worse. Yet we frame sports as inherently wholesome, marred by a few bad apples, and video games as inherently worthless, alleviated by a few wholesome bright spots, simply because we value the body and its abilities, look, and “fitness” more highly than the mind.

civilization

Civilization V is a massive, complex strategy game from Firaxis wherein you must build and maintain your civilization from prehistoric times through the future.

But video games make people more violent! The problem with that notion is that violent crime has actually reduced since the introduction of video gaming, leading to the logical conclusion that video games do not “cause violence.”

The problem lies in the studies themselves. When you structure a study around video game violence, you don’t send researchers to sit in 2500 rooms for 100 hours each to watch 2500 people make their way through the Dragon Age: Origins narrative, wherein the player’s character is centered as a hero saving the world from monsters, or the Fallout 3 narrative, wherein the character must survive in a nuclear war-shattered wasteland and fight to realize the character’s father’s dream of bringing clean water to its people. The most common studies involve measuring aggression as relates to non-narrative contexts. The resulting data is completely meaningless. It would be like comparing the way people feel after watching a sophomore player on an underdog team score a game-winning touchdown in a bowl game and then immediately kneel down and propose to his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, and the way people feel after being forced to watch footage of sacks over and over and over without context.

hearthfireconstruction3

The Hearthfire expansion in Skyrim allows players to design and build their own homes bit by bit as they acquire the resources.

The idea that video games are somehow more dangerous, more prone to generate violent acts, than physical games is ableist nonsense that comes from romanticizing and valorizing the body while minimizing the mind. Sure, we talk a good game about the mind, education, and intelligence, but all our attention, money, and concern are focused on the body. We pay university sports coaches huge sums of money while we pay university lecturers below the poverty level. Schools REQUIRE students to participate in physical games and BAN playing video games on campus.

One of the most powerful cultural myths underpinning the hatred of video games is the longstanding fear of technology. We have feared and mistrusted every technological advance ever, from movable type to the internet. The absolute silliest argument is that analog games such as board games are healthy, but video games are dangerous, as if the screen itself has some kind of magical power to render the game’s benefits inert. This fear and mistrust of technology are themselves arguably aspects of anti-intellectualism– fear of what the “eggheads” have unleashed upon us. Fear of science, technology, and new knowledge have been encoded into our culture at every level, from the Garden of Eden to Faust to Battlestar Galactica. Pushing the limits of what the body can do is prized and treasured as a measure of humanity’s highest worth. Pushing the limits of what the mind can do in the form of new technologies, inventions, and discoveries is deeply mistrusted, with each new advance meeting a screeching wall of resistance based on its supposed “dangers.”

reapers

The main antagonists in Bioware’s Mass Effect series are the Reapers, a sentient race of synthetic-organic starships.

The truth is, playing video games is as good, maybe even better, than playing sports. Video games– even violent shooter games– exercise your mind in the same way that physical games exercise your body.

Video games are elaborate puzzles, often within complex narratives with far more narrative content, and more complex narrative content, than a book or a film has room to hold. There are many games where the mythopoeia alone could fill several volumes.

Video games make players better problem solvers, as well as boost memory and cognitive skills. Gamers are helping scientists solve complex problems. An enormous number of modern games track a player’s in-game choices, changing the way NPCs (non-player characters) interact with the player based on the morality of their past choices. Two of many examples include Dragon Age: Origins, where NPCs on your team gain special skills as you gain their trust and friendship, and Fallout 3, where high karma results in NPCs giving you gifts and the in-game radio DJ, Three Dog, singing your praises on the air. As in life, often the morality of in-game choices is unclear, and players must live with the consequences of their actions long after it’s too late to go back and change their decisions. Many games tackle complex social and historical issues. The Bioshock series, for example, has been ruthless in its criticism of American nostalgia, juxtaposing gorgeous vintage imagery with the brutal reality of our racist, classist, and unregulated capitalist past, leaving the player to draw their own conclusions about the present.

bioshock_infinite_columbia_propaganda

Bioshock Infinite (from Irrational Games) confronts America’s racist past in multiple ways both in the world-building and in the central narrative.

The idea that a teenager who plays video games after school is somehow wasting his time while a teenager who plays football after school is an American Hero reflects our characterization of the body and its achievements as the most wholesome, most moral, most admirable aspect of human life. This is ableist nonsense that reserves the highest moral position in our culture to people whose physical bodies meet or exceed arbitrary standards.

“Can play football at a mediocre level” is somehow framed as morally superior to “Has beaten the Heroic King’s Fall raid on Destiny.” While I can only dream of EITHER, in theory my disability does not prevent me from completing the King’s Fall raid in the same way they prevent me from playing sports, yet my human brain still craves the complex problem solving, action, and competition of game play.

There’s nothing wrong with playing sports, but let’s step away from the silly– and ableist– notion that playing video games is morally inferior.

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged

“Diversity” Is A Problem

In theatre and in academia, my two worlds, we talk a lot about “diversity.” In theatre, we talk about diversity in casting, we talk about diversity in programming, we talk about diversity in audiences. In academia, we talk about “attracting and retaining diverse students” and “the diversity of our faculty.” But there’s a massive elephant in the room that we continue to ignore.

Diversity is not enough.

Do not confuse “diversity” with “equity.” I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again. I have been in far too many situations where faculty believe they are “working to retain” students of color by designing classes with titles like “Keepin’ It Real: African American Performance,” taught by a fussy middle-aged musical theatre professor, instead of engaging the students directly to discover what support they actually need. I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.

Diversity fails if it’s not combined with equity.

Too many white male-run orgs frame diversity as bending down to lift up women and people of color. Women dominate the indie theatre scene as artistic leaders. They’re already out there, creating art every day. People of color aren’t just creating art– they’ve created most of popular American culture.

It’s telling when you hear people say things like, “Black children in the inner cities have no access to art,” and “We need to find ways to help people of color access theatre.” When we discuss “art” or “theatre” in these contexts, we mean “white art” and “white theatre.” We mean the work white people have deemed “important.” If there’s one thing inner cities have never lacked, it’s art. Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities. Hip hop revolutionized music across the globe. Graffiti became a global school of art. Both hip hop and graffiti are already studied and taught in universities globally alongside other important artistic movements like minimalism and abstract expressionism, both of which, I’d like to point out, were originally held in as much disdain as hip hop and graffiti have been. You don’t bend down to grant art to people of color. They’re not starved for art, waiting for a white savior to show up and grant them access. People of color are lapping white culture artistically.

The problem isn’t a lack of access to “art” for women and people of color. The problem is lack of access to funding and well-paid positions of power. The problem is equity.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing important topics like the glass ceiling– how larger theatres across the nation give almost all the positions of power to white men and show no signs of improving over the years we’ve been discussing this. How universities still give the majority of their tenure track positions to men and the majority of their poverty-level adjunct positions to women, despite that Cornell study that measured hypothetical attitudes. The hard data is clear, and those numbers widen when you add race to the mix.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how grantors and individual donors give white-run arts orgs far more funding than they do arts orgs run by people of color. We’re discussing how the study I linked above had the audacity to suggest that lower-funded orgs run by people of color should be left to “wither” and close.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color when the theatres run by people of color, who are already doing that work, are left to fight for scraps. That’s diversity without equity– funding a wealthy white org’s diversity initiative instead of funding a smaller Black org that’s been doing that work for decades. Funding doesn’t have to be either/or. Where are the grants that fund partnerships or co-productions between those orgs? Or between women-run smaller theatres that attract diverse young audiences and the larger theatres that say they’re desperate for those audiences? I would have brought my theatre company into a larger theatre for a co-production in a heartbeat.

The problem with diversity without equity is that diversity can be accomplished in ways that entirely preserve the white male power structure. We congratulate diversity in programming and we ignore the fact that nearly every LORT AD position in the US from the institution of the 501c3 in 1954 to this very day has gone to a man, almost always a white one. We’re making calls for diversity that amount to asking white men to please hire more women and people of color while we ignore the fact that theatres run by women and people of color are literally starving for funding.

Diversity alone is not enough without actively seeking equity at all levels of our industry. We need to commit to both diversity AND equity.

UPDATE 9/8/16: Please read Jason Tseng’s excellent article about equity in arts funding: “The Kaiser Games.”

Tagged , , , , , , ,