White Filmmakers Must Ask: Do We Need More Movies About White People?
The lives of white men are surely worth representing on screen, but creating the illusion that systems of oppression have no part in those lives is a noticeable mistake.
I n the New York Times cover story “The Passion of Martin Scorsese,” the centerpiece was Scorsese’s film, Silence, starring Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, and Adam Driver as Portuguese missionaries sent to Japan in the 17th century. It was a fascinating profile, featuring a revealing interview with the director himself, in which he discussed how a lifelong struggle with faith informed his work.
And yet, in this portrait of Scorsese’s decades-long career, in which he has almost exclusively made films about white men — including one set in Japan — one couldn’t help but notice a glaring omission: There were no questions posed about whiteness, nor any which explored the links between Christianity and Scorsese’s understanding of his own race and gender.
It reminded me of another, much shorter interview, in which Bustle’s Rachel Simon spoke directly to Oscar-nominated director Tim Burton about the lack of people of color in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. In response, the famed mind behind Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish said, regarding film diversity, “Nowadays, people are talking about it more.” But, he continued:
“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.”
Simon then went on to ask Samuel L. Jackson, who plays that lone person of color in Miss Peregrine’s — and is one of the most consistently successful actors working today — for his thoughts on the lack of diversity in the director’s work:
“I had to go back in my head and go, how many black characters have been in Tim Burton movies? And I may have been the first, I don’t know, or the most prominent in that particular way, but it happens the way it happens.”
Both men in this story were asked to comment on the missing people of color in Burton’s films, meaning Jackson was inevitably put in the position of responding to a white man’s perspective on, or behavior toward, people who look like him. Why doesn’t he include you?
Yet, on the other hand, Burton was not asked to justify the inclusion of people who look like him. Why do you prefer to include white people?
Not surprisingly, the Bustle article sparked a trending topic on Twitter, with fans and critics sparring over the meaning of Burton’s comments, and his historic disregard for people of color (Simon writes that “it does appear that Jackson is perhaps the first black actor to be cast in a leading role” in Burton’s films).
Jackson was inevitably put in the position of responding to a white man’s perspective on, or behavior toward, people who look like him.
What was particularly fascinating about that conversation though, both in the director’s dismissive comments and in those of his defenders online, was this unstated equivalence made between a mostly Black cast and one which is predominantly white. As Burton says, he believes films “either call for” diversity, or they don’t, an idea which seems to imply that the majority of his films needed to star white people.
After a century of blindingly white Hollywood productions — and in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency— the question for every white person working in film today might really be: Do we need any more movies about white people?
The Purpose Of Whiteness On Screen
Burton, the director of Sweeney Todd, compares his work to “blaxploitation movies,” the influential and controversial genre which birthed hits like 1971’s Shaft. Yet, of course, blaxploitation films — despite often perpetuating harmful stereotypes themselves — were largely made in response to the blandness of the white status quo, or as they have been described by the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson, “The black heroes were antiheroes” and they were “fighting against The Man.”
It’s hard to argue that movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory function in a similar way, mostly because they are made by, about, and seemingly for white people (aka “The Man”). Moreover, because Burton specializes in making the kind of fantasy films where anything is possible — including elevators to the clouds and talking cats — it’s strange to imply that these stories aren’t ones that “call for” people of color. What is it about the made-up setting of Edward Scissorhands which prevents it from including more Latinx people? Why couldn’t the silly world of Batman Returns accommodate a couple Black women?
Yet, in a different 2016 interview, Oscar-winning filmmaker Ethan Coen seemed to echo Burton’s thoughts:
“It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity — or it might not.”
Coen’s implication, based on his own resume, is that there are certain movies that just don’t require the involvement of people of color. Films which again need to be white in order to be told “in the right way.”
In No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ Oscar-winning Western about life on the border between the United States and Mexico, the only person of color in a leading role is Javier Bardem — who plays the villain Chigurh. Bardem’s character becomes a kind of border-crossing monster, or yet another person of color playing the scary “other” — though since the story itself is about fear of change in America, some have argued that this is intentional. That perhaps this is a film about the loss of a specific way of life for white men, and a critique of their xenophobia.
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But in many of the duo’s other films, like Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski, all the leading roles are filled by white actors, yet there is no serious investigation of how being white plays a role in their lives. As Ann Hornday wrote of 2016’s Hail Caesar!, “Its pervasive whiteness is of a piece with the filmmakers’ well-established house style.” The Coens’ films tell specific stories about specific white people, who we’re meant to assume do not interact with people of color very often in their parts of the country.
Yet this emphasis on whiteness, according to what Ethan’s brother Joel told The Daily Beast back in that same February interview, does not seem to be intentional:
“You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’ — right? That’s not how stories get written.”
Which suggests that white people do not sit down to write stories about white people — it just happens, incidentally. That might be easier to believe though, if the careers of Scorsese, Burton, and the Coens were just flukes. If whiteness wasn’t so pervasive at every level of the industry. If, perhaps, 94% of studio heads weren’t white men, making projects with white directors 80% of the time, and in which less than 30% of the lines go to people who don’t look like them.
Even so, films with all, or mostly, white casts are not inherently harmful (some are great), but they do create for themselves a unique problem. Because even as the overwhelming whiteness on screen goes unquestioned, unremarked upon, it remains up there for us all to see — and it thus necessarily conveys some meaning.
The Impact of Unchallenged Whiteness
This gets to the root of a central misunderstanding in the debate about onscreen representation. Many of the movements calling for change in Hollywood today, like April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite, aren’t just pointing to the ways in which mainstream film fails to reflect the reality of the world — where women of color actually exist . They also draw attention to how the industry’s monotony reinforces systems of exploitation, like white supremacy and patriarchy, which privilege straight white men in our society at every turn.
Thus, even when creating the kind of fantastical worlds which Tim Burton is celebrated for, the choice to include only or mostly white people has broader implications. Characters and the people who play them, whether they are white or not, cannot exist outside of their skin (unless that’s part of the plot). Burton’s films are necessarily viewed by audiences within a context of historic oppression, mostly at the hands of white men.
None of us walk into a movie theater without our identities, and we all consume media in a country founded on genocide — one still plagued by systemic inequity. It is not possible, then, for us to see an image whose meaning is not imbued with that reality.
The industry’s monotony reinforces systems of exploitation, like white supremacy and patriarchy.
But one of the insidious ways in which Hollywood influences our thinking is by perpetuating the myth that white people are beyond this, that they can be stand-ins for anyone — for all human beings. Or that there is a person for whom race is irrelevant to their life, and this person can only be white. An idea which is reflected in the comments of both Burton and Coen.
When a film centers Black people, or doesn’t have any white people who speak in it — like Queen of Katwe or Moonlight — it inherently presents a challenge to the status quo, and is often seen as such. It becomes a Black film. A niche film. But this is partially because, whether there is an intentional focus on race or not in the script, audiences are forced to see people of color and to put themselves in their shoes. And that can be a surprising feeling for people who are, due to that historic lack of inclusion, not accustomed to that kind of experience.
Films starring white people, or featuring zero people of color, don’t have the same impact. They must contend with an inherent dilemma, which is that without any commentary, their casting reinforces the status quo. White remains the default, and this itself is a kind of unspoken celebration. Ignoring this reality as a filmmaker is like ignoring a boom mic which falls into the frame. We will see it, even if the director somehow missed it.
Yet movies which star white people and actually examine the race of its stars are extremely rare. In his review of Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl, Moze Halprin at Flavorwire describes it as “one of the few films I can think of that’s about whiteness and knows it.” Too often the question of “diversity” on screen becomes one solely for people of color, or one for women to address in their work. It’s akin to coverage of the recent presidential election, where reporters asked Donald Trump to respond to the discomfort that communities of color felt with his candidacy, though rarely asked him why so many white people were comfortable with it.
In order to transform our ideas of what is “normal” on screen, we not only need more films like Queen of Katwe, which celebrate Black women, but more investigations into how race plays a role in the lives of white people, too. This doesn’t mean characters need to always explicitly discuss their race in the script, but rather that there is some attempt to make whiteness serve a purpose in the storytelling. For example, Dr. Tani D. Sanchez, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, has argued that The Matrix trilogy, and its central conceit of being plugged into something false, was an attempt to “challenge whiteness . . . to suggest possible routes into social change.”
The lives of white men are surely worth representing on screen, but creating the illusion that systems of oppression have no part in those lives is a noticeable mistake — and one which reinforces oppression. In the same way that we acknowledge that the lighting or score can alter a film, so can an ignorance of race and gender.
What is especially disturbing is when filmmakers of Burton or the Coens’ stature, those white men with immense power in the industry, continue to disingenuously present the predominance of white skin in their work as if it were purely an aesthetic choice, or one made by accident. Or, in a similar sense, when we sit down for an interview with a man like Scorsese, one of the most famous white people making films about white people today — especially one with the plot of Silence — and fail to interrogate his use of whiteness on screen. As if skin color has no greater meaning in the world.