Tim Burton’s nostalgia: Romantic or Racist?

Over the past week veteran film-maker Tim Burton has come under considerable criticism over the lack of diversity in his casting.

The dozen or so child actors in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are exclusively white. When asked to comment on diversity in films and how it related to casting in the film by Bustle magazine’s Rachel Simon, Burton had this to say:

“..[T]hings 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.”

mv5bmtcwntc4ntmzof5bml5banbnxkftztywmzc5odyz-_v1_ux214_cr00214317_al_So yeah, that generated a reaction.

A quick review of Burton’s 36 or so films confirms that he certainly has rarely felt a need for diversity in casting. In fact Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the villainous Barron in the new movie will be the first non-white with a substantial role in one of Burton’s films.

(Although it could be argued that Mr Oogie Boogie, the villain in The Nightmare Before Christmas who talks in deep baritone jive may have preceded Jackson in the colored villain slot. They were different times guys.)

Does this indicate that the casting in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is latently racist? Not really. The dozen or so children in the cast are all Caucasian, but according to the plot they are caught in a 1940s time loop.

Historically speaking, in the 1950s there were probably fewer than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain, almost all born overseas. So the probability of being non-white, British, and one of the twelve children in that region with superpowers is pretty low. I am with Burton on his casting choice in this one.

Equally, one cannot dispute that Tim Burton’s particular visions of times past (both British and American) are very, very, white. Like, if you were to line up the stars of his films end to end, you could not find a more pasty – sometimes supernaturally white – assortment of people.

In an era where ‘Make America Great Again’ means ‘Make America White Again,’ you cannot simply evoke cosy nostalgic images of a particular idealised white past again and again without reflecting on what that might mean to persons of colour (hereafter, ‘browns’).

Or generally, what nostalgia for western culture of times gone by may mean for browns.

Not everyone experiences nostalgia the same way

Generally speaking, books and movies that fetishize 1940s England, do not tend to appeal to me.

I don’t share the fascination with a simpler time of lacrosse games, picnics by the seaside and knitted tea cosies that some of my hipster friends share, for the simple fact that it represents a world I could not have participated in.

The same goes for music. While I can enjoy the music of ‘Joy Division’ and ‘The Clash’ as much as the next music nerd, when someone says: OMG I love vinyl and everything about the 70s I totally love the 70s I was totally born in the wrong era, wouldn’t you have loved to have been born in the 70s?

I think: Hmm…a time when a brown person could be called a ‘Paki’ and bashed to death by ultra-nationalists that listened to interesting music. No, not really.

Hardy ancestors or scary rednecks? The answer may depend on your cultural background, and whether you have seen the film ‘Deliverance.’

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, we have the back to basics lumberjack nostalgia. We have an abundance of hipsters self-styled as southern mountain folk playing undersize string instruments. It may seem a simple whimsical callback to a time before Web 2.0, but let me tell you if you are brown there is no mass appeal there. It is just music to lynch to. Or at the very least it is not going to call to something deep and basic at the root of your soul.

Look, there is nothing wrong with loving the Lumineers, or learning to make home brew, or only wanting to make movies with a gothic aesthetic.

But it’s naïve to make out like nostalgia is colorblind, particularly if you are going to invoke Blaxploitation movies as an argument for racial uniformity in casting.

They were quick and cheap movies churned out in response to the absence of people of color in American film. The cultural value of Blaxploitation remains contentious, but they were made in reaction to an exclusion by white film-makers, not as an exclusion of whites.

And as a general rule, browns do not have nostalgia for those times. It’s just Quentin Tarantino.

Nostalgia is messy and complicated and calls for a dialogue beyond one of simple racist labelling.

An example from my own life of being confronted with white nostalgia: I recently had lunch with a friend of mine of British heritage who had just returned from a holiday in India. When prompted about her trip, she immediately began gushing how great it had been to stay at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, a famous colonial hotel, where she could imagine her grandfather sipping a gin and tonic among the frangipanis.

She then went on to tell an at length anecdote about how the British had made the Indians build a famous monument, the Gateway of India, to honour the British rule as a big ‘screw you’ for having to cede India to independent rule.

For me, knowing the consequences of a rushed and clumsy partition, following decades of divide and conquer setting different ethnic groups at each others’ throats, did not make me terribly receptive to this ideal of genteel colonialism.

I had to voice my feelings about her perception of my (sort of one generation back) homeland. An interesting, productive, if somewhat tense dialogue followed.

In my opinion, it is not racist to paint a nostalgic image of an era, as Mr Burton tends to do. But if you are going to continually romanticise an idea of time and place, that excludes particular ethnic groups, be prepared to talk about it, and to wear some criticism.

People who don’t have a place in your fantasy may get annoyed.

One thought on “Tim Burton’s nostalgia: Romantic or Racist?

  1. Recently I read ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell. It was is first book and its based loosely on his time living in Burma as part of the Imperial Police Force. The book took me back to my years of living in South East Asia: the smell, the food, the rain, the heat, the insects, and the people. I was being nostalgic, that is for sure. Nostalgic because I left so much of my career dreams in South East Asia, and left behind so many people who needed me, to arrive at the cosy shores of Australia. Unless you live like a ‘local’ then you are continuing to live with imperial comfort. My father is now reading the book as we spent many weeks of the year when I was a child living and working in Burma. What he is feeling nostalgic about? The games of tennis after work and the young boy who had to be his caddie as he had a round of golf and the monetary tip that incurred from this exchange. You are right, it is easy to idealise an era, but it is much harder for people these days to read, to think, to analyse, to question what it is that they are representing. There is too much bumper sticker thinking amongst the social media driven world of today.


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