Casting, Race, and Why Tim Burton is Alarmingly Wrong



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?


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. 




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21 thoughts on “Casting, Race, and Why Tim Burton is Alarmingly Wrong

  1. LouiseP says:

    “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 making casting him as the villain.”

    Exactly! Once again, well put.

  2. You went IN on this one, but I seek to deepen this idea and offer that we have to be sensitive and aware when casting people of different cultural backgrounds that it may change the dynamic of the interplay between character. This may have been implied in what you are saying, but it may not have been.

    My point is, race does come up in conversation amongst a mixed community. Adding diversity to the cast can call for adding a dialogue about race.

    Unless like in Star Trek, the cast was very diverse, and race did not come to the forefront, but inter alien dynamics were a large part of the dialogue, maybe they chose to address that social dynamic in the context of their intergalactic world and the peoples within it. But I end applauding you for getting us to think about something uncomfortable and necessary.

  3. Chas Belov says:

    Certainly gay characters presence in television had a huge effect on changing the conversation around gay rights. I agree with you that more rounded portrayals in media can have the same affect on black lives.

  4. lkeke35 says:

    This is very well put.
    I’m going to make the argument that this also goes hand in hand with the television cop narratives the public has been inundated with since the eighties. You know why so many people keep repeating the idea that cops lives are dangerous, drug crime is out of control, and that all cops are good guys?

    I blame nearly three decades of television propaganda: cop show, after cop show, after cop show, hammering home the message that they can do nothing wrong. And most people don’t even know they’re merely parroting things they’ve been taught from years of TV viewing.

    I’m reminded of a book I read in which people tried to stage crime scenes so as to get away with it, but real police work quickly figured out their lies and the staging because of “real” police work, and how their lies and staging was based on tropes that the person had seen in TV shows.

  5. TheWarner says:

    Wonderful article. Burton’s stance on diverse casting is the standard excuse directors such as him and Ridley Scott have been spouting for years. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a Tim Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow…17 years ago.

    Samuel L. Jackson or not, I certainly won’t be wasting my money or my time to watch his latest film, especially given his ignorant comments on diverse casting.

  6. Interesting and thought provoking. A definite conversation starter if one chose to jump in to the fray.

  7. Omar says:

    Wow what an utterly distorted view of film, artistic freedom and (ironically) respect for diversity this author has. What Burton means is that a role may call for certain qualities and casting choices should be based on which actors possess those qualities. If the choice is made based on race (White OR Black), the film may suffer as a result. But of course the author doesn’t care about that. Their view of how the world should be is all that matters.

    • Aside from the quality of whiteness, what qualities do you imagine can only be found from white actors? Do you imagine that by pure coincidence Tim Burton was only able find actors with the correct ‘certain qualities’ who happened to be white?

      I have some news for you: there is an enormous pool of amazing actors in the world, and they come in all colours, shapes and sizes. Not only is there an actor of any race who is suitable for any role in that movie, there are hundreds of them. It’s not about allowing in some second-rate Asian, Black or Aboriginal actor to make up a quota. It’s about drawing from the huge talent pool that’s out there. Unless you’re actually saying that the necessary quality these actors all shared was that they’re white.

      • Casting calls for major films generally specify race in some way. When it’s a major role where there’s no casting call put out, you can look at the pool of actors being considered and/or read. In most cases, actors of color aren’t even auditioned for these roles.

      • Omar says:

        You’ve misunderstood what I was saying. I never said that only white actors have certain qualities. I was saying if the casting director was faced with a decision between a white or a black actor, with the white actor being right for the part (because he/she happens to have the right qualities – not because he/she is white but just because they happen to), choosing the black actor over the white one in order to make the film more diverse would affect the quality of the film. But clearly the author would choose the black actor in that situation because she doesn’t care about the director’s vision or artistic freedom or the quality of the film in general. My point is that there are other considerations. Also, let’s not forget that Black people comprise 12-14% of the population, so based solely on the numbers, the chances that a white person will have the qualities, whatever they may be, that the part calls for is much greater.

      • This is the last comment I’m going to approve of yours that contains misinformation. The issue is that actors of color are not *considered* for these roles. If they were, we would see more balanced casts as race is just one of many qualities we consider when casting. To make race the primary qualification for the role when the script does not call for any race specifically– such as in Burton’s film– is a failure of imagination on the part of the director. The idea that actors of color would of necessity be inferior to white actors and cast only for their race is not accurate.

      • Omar says:

        I think you’re trying to read minds. Isn’t it entirely possible that Burton considered 10 other actors before deciding to give the role or offer the role to Jackson? The same is true of a white actor being offered a role that a black actor was considered for. We’re talking about decisions that are made in the mind of a director. By questioning his or her casting (or any other creative choices), aren’t we devaluing their artistic vision? If Picasso painted mostly white women, isn’t that a racial bias too? I don’t think so – he was inspired by white women, that doesn’t mean black women are ugly or even that he thought so. To be clear, I’m not saying that a racial bias doesn’t exist at all. I’m just saying many people in this country have developed tunnel vision, and only see things in terms of race without considering ANY other factors that may contribute to things being the way they are. I once again point as an example, to the fact (universally ignored) that Black actors are much fewer in number to begin with. So when considering actors for a role, of course there will be fewer black actors looked at.

      • I’ve been casting for two decades. Casting calls are publicly available, and you can see for yourself what they say. For major roles, who is being read for which role is not a secret, so you can see who’s being considered. There are articles all the time in trade publications discussing who is being considered for which role. You can also look at a director’s casting history and see how often s/he casts white people in roles that have no need to be any specific race. Since we know without question that race is a minor consideration in most roles, that alone points to a bias. Casting does not at all happen “in the mind of the director.” It happens publicly, with actors, casting directors, casting assistants, agents, published casting calls. Directors have a lot of artistic power, but we do not cast using the power of our minds alone. I’m responding to you because I believe you just don’t know how we cast, and your ignorance is honest. But seriously, the concept is not difficult to understand: Burton is not considering actors of color for these roles, and that is emblematic of too many directors in both theatre and film.

      • Omar says:

        I admit, I know very little about the casting process, but my comments don’t require knowledge of the process, just about decision making. And I do know a thing or two about being an artist and artistic freedom and I find efforts to change choices that an artist has made to be highly offensive. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about those choices, but I do think pressure is put on people (professional ostracization, blacklisting, etc.) that don’t tow the party line, so to speak, which goes beyond having an opinion and amounts to efforts to coerce people into behaving a certain way. And who decides which roles call for an actor of a particular race and which ones don’t? Is there an official list somewhere that I’m not aware of?

        SOMEONE decides whose names go into those publications you mentioned. That’s the decision that takes place in the “director’s mind” that I was referring to, not the process that takes place after that, in the public eye (since we were talking about who is being “considered” – someone narrows down the list of stars BEFORE their names go public. Hope this is clear enough).

        You ignored the larger issues that affect the casting process – that of proportionality of race relative to the population as a whole. I don’t know the percentage of Black actors relative to white actors, but would assume that it reflects the percentage in the population at large. So when you say “black actors aren’t being considered”, it’s entirely possible that the reason so few are being considered or looked at IS BECAUSE THERE ARE A LOT FEWER OF THEM TO BEGIN WITH. Does that make sense? So if 8 out of 10 times (give or take) a director chooses a white actor for these “race neutral” roles you mentioned they are not reflecting a bias. If you can show me stats on the racial make-up of actors vs. their representation in these sorts of roles, I will (and I honestly mean it) change my opinion.

        Going back to the “qualities” issue regarding actors. The consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond, an iconic character, was very interesting to me and one that I thought was fantastic – not because he was black, but because he’s one dashing, debonair and good looking dude with a smoldering sexuality. In short, he’s perfect for the part. That’s what I mean when I say “qualities” (this is the same case I made for Obama as president – that he was super qualified and had the right temperament, as opposed to a certain *ahem* current candidate). In fact when I was living in nyc and mentioned that I supported him because he was so smart and accomplished, and I believed he was a good person, a black guy at a bodega said “oh so you think he’s more white.” I just think that generally speaking many people place a disproportionate amount of importance on race in an effort to create diversity and that that approach can really cause problems in other areas. It’s something that many liberals refuse to recognize and it’s the truth in my view.

  8. Omar says:

    Interesting how Ms. Gertrude is willing to hold Burton responsible for his decisions but not Samuel Jackson responsible for his decision to take the role. Is he not responsible for the roles he takes? Hollywood is controlled by stars-with rare exceptions, they get what they want so if he didn’t know about his part or the film as a whole, he should have demanded to see the script. Double standard anyone? See the problem I have with this type of thinking is that it reflects a lack of character. It’s unprincipled.

    • Not quite sure you understand how movies work, but when Jackson was offered the role, he probably had no idea of the racial make-up of the movie. He can look at the script all day long, but where it says (for instance) “Peter” he can’t know which actor
      is cast in that role, and unless it specified in the script ‘All characters are white except 1’, there’s no way for him to know. Once he’d signed a contract it would have been a very big deal if he broke it.

      Now, should he have? Possibly. And that’s an interesting point, if you want to make it. But an actor, even one as much in demand as Jackson, doesn’t have a lot of power about the shape of a movie. (You say Hollywood is controlled by stars. That’s a myth.) Producers, studio executives, directors, etc, make the big choices. So, yes, perhaps Jackson should have turned the movie down. But his ability to change the situation is radically different from the Actual Creator of the Movie. So calling this a double standard is weird.

      Also, if Jackson should have turned it down, maybe the other actors should have too. Why are you not criticizing them? Double standard? Definitely.

      • Omar says:

        “Now, should he have? Possibly. And that’s an interesting point, if you want to make it.”


        It’s not the director’s responsibility to justify his/her casting choices to an actor. Honestly, they shouldn’t even have to reveal those things to an actor, but since race is such a sensitive topic, I’ll grant that an exception could be made with this type of creative decision (If those kinds of questions need to be approved by actors, why wouldn’t they be able to ask about wardrobe, or cinematography or make-up to see if those decisions meet their approval?). The actor is playing A ROLE – a single role. When I accept a job, do I get a say in how the company is run? Granted, we’re talking about a star, so this is flexible (and I take issue with the notion that Hollywood isn’t run by stars. Stars know that movies can’t get made without them so they have plenty of power in negotiating contracts. Jackson could have easily demanded to know the racial make-up of the film prior to signing a contract and he probably would have gotten it. They only exception would be a super secret script like, Star Wars or something for which actors are only given portions of the script). Plus, based on Jackson’s roles in numerous Tarantino films, for example, he often knows what he’s getting into and doesn’t seem to care about racial make-up…(ooh that’s a crime, isn’t it? How DARE racial make-up not be a consideration. How DARE someone not have the same priorities as the social justice warriors? How dare they?).

        “But his ability to change the situation is radically different from the Actual Creator of the Movie.”

        Of course he can’t make creative changes but he certainly could have turned down the role if he didn’t like it for whatever reason. My point is that he’s responsible for accepting the role and should have gathered all relevant information that he wanted to go into making that decision (again, if we were to make this completely fair, actors would base their acceptance of roles solely on the script, not on other factors. To ask for changes to how the entire system of casting works by demanding more information is an imposition, but one that given the sensitive nature of the issue at hand, can be allowed).

        The double standard you allege on my part is absurd because the author of this article never suggests that other actors should have turned down their roles. She only mentions her lack of blame for Jackson not doing so. And it’s his responsibility to turn something down if he finds it unacceptable, just as it’s the other actors responsibility to turn down their roles if they don’t like the title of the film, or the story or whatever. But the article is about the race issue, not about those issues so that’s why I haven’t mentioned it. If the article were about those issues, I certainly would have.

    • jiva says:

      Omar, Funny that you should mention idris.. because the new James Bond writer said he is “too street” to play 007. When one is as dashing, debonair and good looking with a smoldering sexuality as Idris– yet still “too street” to play Bond.. how are we to interpret that?

  9. SJW-KILLA says:

    So many triggered snowflakes. Regressive tears….mmmm yummy yummy.

  10. Ultizan says:

    This is media driven faux outrage. A reporter asked Burton a race baiting question that had nothing to do with anything, and Burton replied quite correctly that forced diversity can be lame. Instant story and manufactured outrage for lazy journalists. It means nothing.

    Do you want to know the reason Burton hasn’t cast more minority actors? Besides Michael Clark Duncan and Billy Dee Williams and now Samuel L. Jackson? No reason. There is no reason. This is not a problem. Why assume malice and racism when literally “no reason” is the most obvious answer?

    Bluntly, Burton is a goth weirdo. There was a time when he championed the weirdo, and his work meant a lot to many, many people. But instead of recognizing his work which meant a lot to alienated youth, he’s a racist because of lazy journalism. Forget the countless kids his work reached, because they are white, right?

    And why oh why can’t Jackson play a villain? THAT’S A SELLING POINT. He’s an actor with a massive following. Christ.

    Final question: Did you see this film?

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