Tim Burton’s Racist Comments Loom Over Otherwise Great Casting for Netflix’s ‘Wednesday’
We're not going to just forget.
From insisting he was never influenced (even indirectly) by major art movements to downplaying the Jewish cultural elements of his works, director Tim Burton has done and said a number of questionable things in his long film career. However, his comments about Black and brown people not fitting his aesthetic was the bluntest and most recent of these … choices. In a 2016 interview with Bustle, he pretended like calls for diversity were new and tried to use the ’70s genre of blaxploitation (a genre created in spite of people like Burton) as a shield for his own mono-racial casting.
Something that hurts more than this comment is that many people of color who’ve dipped their toes in the alt aesthetic (maybe under another name like “emo” or “goth”) in their youth have heard versions of this justification among friends and peers who definitely made a Tim Burton movie their entire aesthetic. (My money’s on The Nightmare Before Christmas.) On the other end of the spectrum, there’s family and intra-community pushback that Tim Burton’s work is something along the lines of “white people shit.” Burton’s comments echoed all of that.
“What about [this token character of color]?”
Some defended his comics with a flurry of equally (if not worse) racist statements and sentiments, but others took this as a moment to defend his employment of key Black roles. Let’s look at this and widen it to visible people of color. The supporting characters that come to mind are Billy Dee Williams in Batman (1989), Deep Roy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and Nico Parker in Dumbo (2019). Roy plays an army of happy brown servants, and Parker would not have been cast if she were darker-skinned or had non-famous parents (that is, Ol Parker and Thandiwe Newton). Instead of just wanting to be more inclusive in Batman, Burton intended to use Williams’ race to dramatize the two sides of Harvey Dent, and considering how crassly Burton talks about race, I’m glad that was scrapped for the following movie.
The only leading roles are of two Black men as villains: Samuel L. Jackson in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Childern (2016) and Ken Page’s voice in A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Page played a character (Oogie Boogey) named after a Black slur, inspired by the first music frontman Cab Calloway, and with personality traits of loving gumbo made of bugs, gambling, and jazz. Oogie Boogey is one of the first of many instances of Burton’s relationship with fatphobic characters that are portrayed as greedy and not to be trusted.
Screenwriter Caroline Thomspon told Insider in 2020 that she recognized the issues with Page’s character at the time, but Burton dismissed her as being “oversensitive.” (Something he echoed in that interview over 20 years later when he said “politically correct.”)
In over 26 feature films of which he was the director, producer, and writer (almost always both of the first two), that’s it for the main and supporting characters of color. People making jokes that he “just casts the same few people” ignore how those same people only amount to like four people, and four people don’t make a movie.
Now, a few years later (and after several critical failures, I might add), Burton is back and making his TV directorial debut with Netflix’s take on Wednesday Addams, which stars several Latinx leads. Burton aside, this is a reaffirmation of a Latinx presence on her father’s (Gomez) side. The original cartoon was a Spanish caricature, but the major big screen adaptations have featured Puerto Rican (Raul Julia in The Addams Family movies) and Guatemalan/Cuban (Oscar Issac in animated The Addams Family) actors. Now, Jenny Ortega will take on the role of Wednesday with her father, played by the iconic Luis Guzmán.
Because Burton’s made it clear where he stands, it’s hard not to see this casting as a shield—possibly a shield for Netflix, too, since they continue to cancel Latinx shows. Also, in the teaser trailer, we already see Ortega with seemingly lightened skin (probably through makeup and post). It’s hard to say for sure what was done, but I’m just going to side-eye it because Burton’s already made his thoughts on non-white people and “ethnic origins” in his projects pretty clear:
Despite Wednesday coming from a multi-ethnic family (which is a running homage to the original intention of how the family was designed), like much of his other works, Burton will probably (in his eyes) “make up for” this by making sure to have them written and staged as Eurocentric as possible, as he’s done for many other stories in the past.
People can grow, but doubling your cast of people of color on one project with nothing else to show you’ve made progress as a person makes me think you will continue to tokenize your actors instead of seeing them as your creative peers. For a streaming service that’s very buddy-buddy with the concept of a paper bag test (among many other issues), this shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. As a fan of Ortega, Ricci, and the character as a whole, I want this to be good, and I want Burton to progress past thinking tales about underdogs and weirdos are stories for and about white people. Even if he shed his racism, xenophobia, and fatphobia, Burton would not have the range to do anything other than make something visually look like he had a hand in it, let alone tell a story with a diverse cast.
(featured image: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for RFF)
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