The Nightmare Before Christmas - Is Oogie Boogie Racist

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:

“Cab Calloway would dance his inimitable jazz dance and sing ‘Minnie the Moocher’ or ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, and they would rotoscope him, trace him, turn him into a cartoon character, often transforming him into an animal, like a walrus. I think those are some of the most inventive moments in cartoon history, in no way racist, even though he was sometimes a villain. We went with Ken Page, who is a black singer, and he had no problem with it.”

From my perspective, the name Oogie Boogie is merely a reference to the boogeyman. He’s made to look like a creepy ghost made out of an old sack. That train of thought seems to track because there are several iterations of the boogeyman, both in the United States and in countries like Hungary, Brazil, Portugal, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and North Macedonia, where the image of the boogeyman is a man, woman, or creature who carries a sack used to kidnap children.

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.

The Nightmare Before Christmas - Is Oogie Boogie Racist

Another Creative Clash Over Oogie Boogie

But this wasn’t the only creative clash there was behind the scenes about Oogie Boogie. Thompson recalled another instance when director Henry Selick had a different idea about what Oogie Boogie’s identity would be. In the movie, when the villain’s cloth body becomes unraveled by Jack Skellington, it’s revealed that he’s just a collection of a bunch of tiny little bugs. But Selick had a different idea. Thompson explained:

“Henry and Tim [Burton] had a giant fight over Oogie Boogie where Henry wanted the reveal inside Oogie Boogie to be Dr Finkelstein, manipulating Oogie Boogie rather than the sack of moths.”

Burton didn’t like that. In fact, he hated the idea so much that he “flipped out and kicked a hole in the wall then walked out of the room.” Thompson couldn’t confirm whether he also yelled, “You try to make a dupe out of me?!” but we’ll just assume that’s what happened.

Even though that’s an unnecessary reaction to a creative consideration, I have to say that I agree with Burton on that not being a good idea. Making Finkelstein the controller of Oogie Boogie doesn’t add anything to the narrative, and if anything, it makes the character unnecessarily more complicated. Granted, having Oogie Boogie made out of a bunch of bugs doesn’t really make sense either, especially since it’s not clear how they all come together to have one consciousness as Oogie Boogie, complete with a single, big booming voice. But that kind of explanation isn’t really required for a movie where holidays have their own worlds that exist inside trees.

Regardless, Thompson says that these creative clashes resulted in a break in the relationship she had with Tim Burton, and unfortunately, the writer adds, “It’s not really been repaired.” Thompson previously worked on Edward Scissorhands with Burton, and though they may have had a fractured relationship after The Nightmare Before Christmas, she did collaborate with him one more time for The Corpse Bride. Maybe it would have been better if they just made a clean break.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: