Hobbits Are White, But Should We Pretend Otherwise?

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.

Crossposted from SOH.

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22 comments to Hobbits Are White, But Should We Pretend Otherwise?

  • Thanks for writing this. We’re huge LOTR nerds in my house and I’ve thought a lot about this (believe it or not).

    I don’t have an answer to your queries either. I liked Mos Def’s turn TONS, and I recently watched Much Ado About Nothing in which Denzel Washington was cast as Don Pedro (and half-brother to a character played by Keaneu Reeves). Other notable substitutions in Shakespeare are the upcoming The Tempest in which sorcerer Prospero is turned in by Helen Mirrin as Prospera (a change in sex, not race).

    I don’t know how much good it does to cast a racially (or sexually) diverse cast in an originally-nondiverse work but I’m dubious there’s any harm in it either. As a white woman I can only say that seeing powerful and/or interesting women cast in lead roles where they haven’t been seen before, has been super-uplifting for myself and for my daughter (most “strong female leads” in sci-fi/action etc are often sexxxxy’d up wearing a catsuit or something, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but c’mon)… I wonder if deliberately making sci-fi and fantasy characters less of a whilefest means something to fans of color.

  • Darkrose

    Here’s my thing:

    When PJ was originally asked about the possibility of Hobbits of Color, he dismissed the question as “political correctness”. Yet, he took the character of Arwen, who appears in two scenes in the original trilogy and has nothing remotely resembling agency, and turned her into a badass warrior maiden. Why? Because the story as written has women as supporting characters, with the exception of Eowyn (who later sees the error of her shieldmaiden ways and vows to love plants and Faramir going forward). In order to make it more comfortable for a modern audience, Jackson was willing to go way outside the source text. Which is fine; I think it mostly worked, but turning around and saying, “Oh, you’re just being PC if you think there should be brown hobbits,” seems rather disingenuous to me.

    I don’t think casting POC’s as extras hurt the integrity of the story any more than changing the portrayal of woman, and my biggest beef with the LOTR movies was the characterization of Faramir anyway. But I do remember reading the books for the first time when I was 12, and that gut-punch feeling I got when I read the description of the Haradrim–and it’s been a while, but I remember that description as echoing every racist stereotype of the googly-eyed, big-lipped African–and realizing that the only people in this book who looked even a little like me were the bad guys.

    • I hear you on the expansion of Arwen’s character as a nod to women (and also on how they butchered Faramir). To be honest, I’m not nearly as much of a fan of the films as I am of the books. Though, for the record, Jackson dipped into the appendices — particularly the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen — for several of the scenes he added to the film. So she actually was doing things Tolkien wrote, just not in TLOTR-proper.

      But — and I don’t have my copy of TTT at hand, lost it in the move — I’m pretty sure the descriptions of the Haradrim and the Easterlings were actually really vague. Jackson filled in the details of the dark skinned warriors and came up with these very “tribal” looking guys. But I think if you go back and look at Tolkien’s literal words, you’ll find it’s not quite as stereotypically African as it felt on first reading (and hey, I had the same feeling you did when I first read it 10 years ago). This, of course, could actually be an argument for black hobbits, because so much creative license was taken by Jackson.

  • @Darkrose
    I never read the books but I had that same gut-punch feeling as an adult when I saw the films. I have since read critiques of the books as colonial fantasies based on Nordic mythology and replete with swarthy Arab/dusky African analogues, willowy Aryan faeires and monsters bred from miscegenation. I know the books are well-loved and I understand how people can look past these things and focus on the other messages in LOTR, which is what many PoC fans of the series have said in response to these critiques. But it ruined the films for me. (I literally said “What the fuck!” our loud in the theater when, out of nowhere a marauding Arab horde appeared… not to mention the African “tribally”painted Orcs…)

    @Shani
    Maybe if I were reading the books I could tailor the representations in my head–but when these concepts are realized on film all potential ambiguity is lost. Still, given what I now know about the racist/orientalist DNA of the source material I’m glad they didn’t drum up a couple of Black Hobbits to hang around in the background. The only purpose that would have served is to intentionally obscure racial subtext. It’s gross, but I’d rather it be up front.

    • Maybe if I were reading the books I could tailor the representations in my head–but when these concepts are realized on film all potential ambiguity is lost.

      I think this is the problem, in a nutshell. It’s also why I’m kind of kicking myself for defending a film version of Tolkien’s work, forgetting how many problems I had with Jackson’s adaptation of TLOTR. Anyway, I think you should read the books at some point. 9 hours of film is nowhere near enough time to give the books the treatment they deserve. And I really don’t think the source material is particularly racist; at least not more so than anything else of that time and provenance.

  • brent

    Its an interesting area of discussion. When you are talking about sci-fi and fantasy in particular, is “black” even a signifier. I remember being surprised by seeing a black vulcan (Tuvok)when star trek voyager came out. It was even more surprising to me at the time that, at least in the few episodes I saw, they simply didn’t address the character’s race at all. But then when I thought about it, the obvious question seemed to be how addressing race in that context would even make sense? Tuvok or say, Worf and their fictional alien biographies have no cultural or historical relationship to anything resembling our concept of blackness. To the extent their race is relevant within their narratives, it would have to be in ways that we couldn’t even imagine and it wouldn’t have anything to do with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

    So yeah, why not a black hobbit?

  • quadmoniker

    I think it matters that the films are made now. Who cares that Tolkien wrote about white people for a white audience: the films are not for a white audience exclusively, and shouldn’t be. We’ve also imposed our own idea of whiteness onto the works already: if we were really true to the “artistic” vision, we’d only have people of strict anglo-saxon — and other germanic tribes of the isles — descent and not american actors, who are more likely to have a complex lineage. Moreover, there is not a time in recorded history when the british isles didn’t likely include “swarthy” folks (even pre-roman britain; ancient peoples got around a lot more than we like to think), so it’s even whitewashing the past to assume a lily white group of hobbits. also, we’re already adapting his work so there’s no reason to maintain “artistic vision” in any film version of a movie. to explicitly exclude people of color even in extra capacity is really problematic to me.

    • i agree. i think you could extend this argument, in which you hold the creator’s original intent to be sacrosanct and immutable, to some really weird places. How is Tolkien’s vision hurt/lessened/modified by some brown extras in the background? By this logic, the Donald-Glover-as-Spiderman push was an affront to the intent of Lee and Ditko, and you could dismiss the idea of including POC from any work of a particular age or vintage.

      Between this post and last week’s skeptical post on the Buffy remake, sans Whedon, it seems like Shani’s a proponent of a kind of pop culture originalism.

  • Darth Paul

    Just to the point of Hobbit casting- they are described in the novels as having long BROWN fingers, which suggest unwhiteness. Not necessarily POC, but definitely alien/other. My thought was that the casters should probably seek out people with uncommon/multiethnic phenotypes in order to fit the idea of an alternate race of people. I guess that’s too radical or unprofitable or both.

    As for the humans in the epic, they’re basically white unless evil, and then he permitted some “dark”. In retrospect, I find it sort of racist on the British Imperial tip; not to mention sexist. But I don’t know of any egalitarian fantasy writers from that time period. Very few still.

  • kenpachi

    Ok first there is already a black guy or maybe he is Maori in the lord of the rings, he’s a gondorian in osgiliath i swear he’s there. I think he’s in the last film though maybe in the special additions.
    here is tolkens description of what orcs look like
    “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types”
    I think (and I am a huge fan of the Tolkien and all) that the 19th Century romantic, racist nationalism is basically fundamental to the world of the books, as are all the good things that we like about them (don’t forget classism, all orcs are somehow cockneys).
    The nations of the lord of the rings are basically representations of iron age northern European societies with 19th century nationalist ideas tacked on. (that as far as I’m aware iron age kingdoms fought almost all their battles with people who looked just like them). The inclusion of black hobbits would at best update the racism to the modern 21st century American colonial variety where you can acknowledge racial difference on your own side while still painting enemy as less than human, but does this change the framework of the books/films or make them not racist I’m not so sure. Did tossing that black guy into that crappy remake of king Kong make the racial subtext any less unpleasant

  • @Darth Paul
    “…racist on the British Imperial tip”

    @kenpachi
    “here is Tolkiens description of what orcs look like
    “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types” I think (and I am a huge fan of the Tolkien and all) that the 19th Century romantic, racist nationalism is basically fundamental to the world of the books…”

    Quoted for truth: exactly this.

    @Shani
    I appreciate what you’ve said–and your defense of Tolkien reminds me of my own feelings about the Chronicles of Narnia, which I loved intensely as a kid. As an adult I became aware of the objections to Lewis’ books, which employ similar colonial racist/orientalist tropes and I was dumbstruck: I hadn’t noticed any of this stuff at all when I read them. (The famous Christian subtext of the books that so offends Phillip Pullman sailed right past me too.) So I understand your devotion to the books. I think we need to reserve the right to get pleasure from things that weren’t designed with us in mind. This falls in that category for me… But I also think that the racial subtext of LOTR isn’t based on a US-style black/white dichotomy but rather its European colonial cousin, which implicates “swarthy” former colonial subjects–Arabs, South Asian Indians. And I don’t think it is accidental that these characters were realized on film by Maori and Native actors in the films, since they are the local analogues to that colonial relationship.

    Not for nothing, but this conversation has reignited my anger over the film version of Avatar: the Last Airbender. While I don’t mind that there are European fantasy worlds that are largely mono-racial (as long as non-Europeans aren’t the symbolic bad guys) I do expect that the rare PoC fantasy won’t be reflexively Europeanized. It also makes me really appreciate JK Rowling’s achievement with the Harry Potter series, in which she has intentionally mixed race, class and former colonial subjects in among the heroic, precocious, typically white English characters.

  • DK

    It’s unfair to categorize the people who make films as racists because of how we view their casting practices. I personally have enjoyed a fair number of books cast in different parts of the world, but almost invariably, I have to say that the characters don’t necessarily fit a complexion indigenous to the setting. Period pieces included. My world is not a sea of salt peppered with darker spices. A “fair-skinned” character could be one with great pores, providing a clear, gloss-free face. A “dark-skinned” character can also be just about anyone cast on The Jersey Shore.

    I understand that writer’s intent is vital when expressing the thoughts and feelings and general tone of a piece, but not when depicting the shades for the characters. In our world of mass information, it would be hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know what a white person looks like, however, when drifting away into that right-side of the brain, I would guess that characters will often assume the shades of life surrounding the reader (or perhaps the colors he or she desires).

    Peter Jackson, et al. are not racist for providing characters that are in tune with the world from around Tolkein when he conceived his masterpieces. Simultaneously, it’s hard to say that a modern-day adaptation of the characters would have created a different feeling for Tolkein’s writing, save for that it would be more modern. Black, white, purple, green, yellow are just shades which a creative person (perhaps not as creative as Jackson) could use to produce a feature that endorses inclusion, unity, and overall positive racial relationships AS WELL AS conveys the original meaning of the work. Instead, we get to make race an issue, when obviously, 27 years after his death, I’m sure Tolkein doesn’t give a damn (and if he does, he’s not speaking up).

  • “Hobbit casting agent fired over racism row – National – NZ Herald News” http://bit.ly/e66x0N

  • …And then there’s this, inspired by the casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdal in the upcoming Thor movie. (subtitled “Keep social engineering out of European Mythology”…)

    http://boycott-thor.com/

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