It’s that magical time of year when people needlessly argue about whether or not The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. The democratic answer is that it’s both and everyone should just enjoy it. The correct answer is that it’s a Christmas movie, because 95% of it takes place after Halloween and leading up to Christmas. These are facts.
But there’s another argument surrounding The Nightmare Before Christmas that you might not have heard about. The film’s writer Caroline Thompson recently appeared on the podcast Script Apart, which talks to writers about the first drafts of famous movies. During their discussion, she explained a creative clash she had with producer Tim Burton regarding the depiction of the villain Oogie Boogie, a character who also created a tense confrontation between director Henry Selick and the Batman director.
In the Halloween episode of Script Apart, Caroline Thompson explains that she begged Tim Burton to make some changes to the character of Oogie Boogie, which she believed had “ugly, dangerous, racist” connotations. She explained her perspective:
“The Oogie Boogie character looks like a Klansman [from the Ku Klux Klan]. Oogie Boogie is a derogatory term for African Americans in the American south. I begged the powers that be to change something about that character, because of that. I said: this is so ugly and dangerous and antithetical to everything inside me. I did not win that fight… It was a troubling part of the film for me, to be frank. Plus, his song is sang by a black man. So it’s like a trifecta of wrongness. And as I said, I really did beg Tim to reconsider. Particularly the name… it’s a really evil derogatory term. That’s not a fight I won. I think it’s a fun segment of the story as it was executed but it’s a troubling one.”
This is a bit perplexing to me. I can understand possibly seeing Oogie Boogie resembling a Klansman, even if the burlap material he appears to be made out of is less white and more beige (or green when the black lights come on). And Thompson is correct that the term “boogie” (without Oogie) is a racial slur for Black people. But it doesn’t make sense to have a character resemble a racist Klansman but then give him the name of a racial slur used to disparage the very people they hate.
Plus, the fact that the character is voiced by Black actor Ken Page feels like a strike against the idea of this being a racist character. If there was even a hint of that being the case, you would think that Page wouldn’t have been interested in the role. But I guess that wouldn’t be the first time an actor of actress or color took a job that came with potentially racist baggage simply because it meant getting work in an industry where minorities have to struggle to find jobs.
For what it’s worth, composer Danny Elfman was also worried about the character potentially being seen as racist, specifically by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). According to Wikipedia, Henry Selick had this response to the backlash that did end up coming from the organization:
Any ties to racist elements seem to merely be coincidental. After all, even in these more progressive times, this issue hasn’t been continually pushed forth by any activist groups, and nowadays, a company like Disney would certainly answer quickly for accusations like that, hence the warnings about cultural insensitivity on Disney+ for movies and TV shows that have outdated depictions of certain cultures and people.