Dodai Stewart asks whether the casting agents for the upcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit are racist because they turned away a dark-skinned woman seeking an extra role as a hobbit. The agents’ reasoning is that hobbits are fair-skinned. The woman who got turned away says it’s racism. Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson’s spokesperson calls the whole situation an “unfortunate error.”
Stewart argues that in a fantasy world with made-up inhabitants, why not go with a more diverse cast?
First, I find it very curious that Jackson’s spokesperson calls the casting instructions an “error.” If I recall correctly, the same furor happened over the casting of LOTR in the late ’90s (!). Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, were mainly cast as orcs, a race of animal-like, dark-skinned footsoldiers for the evil Sauron, and other adversaries of the tall, fair Numenorean heroes. The spokesperson’s response is curious to me because, assuming that The Hobbit will be hewing closely to the trilogy, it would be strange to suddenly see dark-skinned folks in the Shire or rocking pointy elf-ears when that wasn’t the case in the previous films.
Anyway, I think Stewart’s argument gets at a bigger question than the vagaries of casting directors: would casting people of color in white characters’ roles compromise Tolkien’s artistic vision?
In some ways, no. After all, there’s nothing especially “white” about the hobbits or the elves or the Numenoreans. And certainly, they didn’t think of themselves as white; they thought of themselves as members of the group to which they belonged. They were the Sindar, or the Rohirrim, or the Dunedain, or whatever.
But that’s because everyone in the book was white. During a conversation about this yesterday, Jamelle (who wrote about it today, too) pointed out that the characters we could assume are non-white (men of the South, Easterlings) were never actually described as such. They were called “swarthy” and “dark-skinned.” In Britain in the 1950s, when Tolkien was writing, Italians, Greeks, and people of Arab descent — groups we now consider white — basically fit that description.
Tolkien invented a vast and detailed mythology for specifically for Anglo-Saxons, complete with languages, a creation story, and history book (that I read years ago and found astounding), The Silmarillion. But he was writing about white people for white people, the way that people can when they don’t have to think about the fact that they’re white. This lack of racial self-consciousness and a commitment to storytelling, I think, are why the books are so universally loved. But I think it’s possible to enjoy the work and still accept that its setting and characters are not really universal, and they don’t have to be. As a black female fan of the books, I’m not disappointed that Galadriel or Arwen or Eowyn wasn’t played by a woman of color. I’m far more concerned about movies set in modern-day America that continue to cast sassy black best friends who have no inner lives.
So back to the question: does casting people of color as extras hurt the integrity of the story? I wish I had a more definitive answer than this: Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t see how it helps, either. There’s no way Bilbo Baggins or any main character would be played by a person of color, so why pretend that there’s racial diversity in the Shire or Bree? (An analog that comes to my mind immediately is Mos Def’s role in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: in the film, which was updated to the 2000s, there was absolutely nothing out of place about Betelgeusean Ford Prefect being black.) I just think it would ultimately be distracting, at best.