For my 30th birthday this year, I traveled to Europe. The good times rolled but it also called for a nearly 7 hour flight across the Atlantic, more than enough time to take in few movies. The airline had a pretty extensive selection to choose from, one of which was the throwback classic, Beetlejuice. This year, the movie turns 30 right along with me and it’s one of the wacky films out of the ‘80s that I grew up watching over and over again. Watching it as an adult, however, the experience was a little different. The special effects were cheesy, Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) is a creep on a level I hadn’t realized at age 12 and particularly offensive in today’s #MeToo era, and most importantly, I know more about the movie’s director, Tim Burton. Armed with a fresh set of eyes and a fully formed morality compass, Beetlejuice was even weirder this time around.
Burton specializes in dark fantasy films that blur the line between kid-friendly and full on terrifying. He is responsible for The Nightmare Before Christmas and the kooky remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just to give you an idea. Beetlejuice falls right in line. It’s about the newly deceased Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), a couple haunting the house they were renovating together just before they died in a car accident. They befriend Lydia (Winona Ryder), the emo teenager who now lives in their house with her out of touch parents and is apparently a medium to the dead. After several failed attempts to scare the new living inhabitants away, they call upon a ghost menace, Beetlejuice, to help them with their predicament and get more than they bargained for. It’s a dark but colorful adventure that reimagines the immediate afterlife as an office building modeled after a carnival funhouse. It’s a busy hub of dead people from all walks of life who are costumed accordingly. I used to think that former blue-skinned beauty queen who died of suicide was particularly stunning. Like many of his other films, Burton toys with morbidity by sprinkling it with prismatic tones.
Unfortunately, Burton’s films and the fantastical worlds within them lose much of their luster (at least for those of us who know better) when confronted with a serious lack of people of color represented. The filmmaker has a history of not prioritizing inclusion in his movies. Over the course of a career that started in the '80s, Burton didn’t cast a person of color in a lead role until 2016, when he made Samuel L. Jackson an eyeball eating villain in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In a 2016 interview with Bustle where he was confronted with this habit, Burton made some controversial comments about diversity attempts that made it clear that he was less than apologetic about who gets cast in his projects. "I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct, like, okay, let’s have an Asian child and a Black," he said. "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, okay, there should be more white people in these movies.”
Clearly Burton isn’t as creative in imagining a world that includes more than white people as he is in bending reality. So I don’t remember Beetlejuice as a blatantly racist movie, and still don’t (although, there is one scene towards the end where a witch doctor that appears to be a person of color silently hexes Beetlejuice that deserves further examination). But I can’t watch it without being reminded that there would never be a place for me in Burton’s living or underworld.