29Nov

Ethnic Tensions In The Shire

As reported in the Guardian:

A British woman of Pakistani origin was reportedly turned away from auditions for Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit in New Zealand on the basis that she was not white enough.

Naz Humphreys, who is 5ft tall, had travelled to Hamilton from Auckland last Tuesday in the hope of securing an extra role on Peter Jackson’s forthcoming two-part adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy tale. However, according to the Waikato Times, she was told after a three-hour wait that her skin tone made it unlikely she would be cast.

“It’s 2010 and I still can’t believe I’m being discriminated against because I have brown skin,” Ms Humphreys told the Waikato Times. “The casting manager basically said they weren’t having anybody who wasn’t pale-skinned.”

Of course, I imagine this isn’t a problem limited to the film; it has its roots in the novel (as much as I loved it). Michael Moorcock touched on the peripheries of these kinds of issues in his Epic Pooh essay, but I’m only surprised there hasn’t been more discussion of race since the first The Lord of the Rings films were released. But indeed, there are many, many white people in these books, and that’s something that can’t be overlooked. So should film-makers recruit a more balanced mix of races given our culture is different these days, or leave things as they are?

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

13 comments

  1. Bah, really disappointed to read this–much as I adore Jackson’s trilogy I was frustrated that he hewed so close to Tolkien’s (often literally) black and white vision of good and evil and Middle Earth–considering all the liberties he took with the text, the last thing that would have bothered me would’ve been a decision to make the elves more Eastern, especially considering he gave some of their weaponry an Eastern aesthetic, or why not simply have all the races have PoC amongst their ranks and thereby avoid potentially exoticizing one group–Ron Howard had black halflings in his not-classic Willow a solid fifteen years before PJ set to working on LotR. Would some people have been pissed and started crying about “political correctness run amok”? Probably, but, frankly, who cares what those clowns think? Considering Jackson (mildly) increased the role of women in his adaptation, why not increase the role of other marginalized groups that Tolkien sidelined or simply failed to include?

    Again, annoyed to read this but hopefully her coming forward about it will draw attention to the problem.

  2. Hi Jesse,

    That’s a good point re: Willow.

    I was half debating whether or not having different species could count towards representing different races, but given that, in the films, nearly everyone who was white was playing someone angelic/good/wonderful, and people of ethnic backgrounds played Uruk-hai etc., I don’t think that would stand up to examination.

    I hope you’re right about attention being drawn to the problem.

  3. Thankfully, that didn’t take long (and the article nails it at the end, too):

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-hobbit-fires-casting-director-for-thinking-onl,48362/

    But yeah, let’s see if anything comes of it in terms of final casting for the movies–just because it’s not official policy doesn’t mean we’re not likely in for another all-Anglo production (except for the goblins, of course–and maybe James Earl Jones as Smaug?).

  4. I think it’s disappointing.

    The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of books is very different kettle of fish than its incarnation as a modern film series. While there is no mistaking the aryan/nordic roots (not to mention the rural Englishness of hobbits & the Shire) of the text or the fact that the only non-white folk are generally on the side of the Dark Lord (orcs, southerners, and easterlings numbered among them) – they are still *books* in their original form, penned at a less diverse period of the recent-past, and whose format allows for a more personal interpretation on the part of the reader as to the exact pigmentation and bone structure of the protagonists. This might be giving Tolkien more benefit than he’s due; but I believe that the universality of a good text allows at least some leeway to see ourselves, whatever group or society or ethnicity we belong to, in the faces and skins of the protagonists.

    Movies are more problematic because they are first and foremost a visual media. They anchor the identities of the characters to the flesh-and-blood choices of the casting. So much of what the reader might inject, has already been decided by another. And no matter how immersive the cinematography and special effects, we also know that these are works of *contemporary* crafting with their cast, locations, and direction being fully formed in the real world. In this case, New Zealand; now that the government has stuck the Nazgul knife in the side of its actors’ union and sold its national dignity to Warner Brothers.

    Should darker skins and Maori features be only seen among the extras playing the Uruk-hai? Or one imagines the goblins, in the case of the Hobbit. Why not the wood-elves or the men of Laketown? Brown skin on such would seem fine. Black dwarfs wouldn’t seem out of place to me either, considering the allies in the Hobbit are called in from far and wide to support the battle of the Five Armies. How far from all that is a brown hobbit? Is this really about sticking to the books, which after all were not set in New Zealand or in the 21st century but in an imaginary land called Middle Earth. Or is it a more subtle form of the same needless racism found in the execrable M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender?

    I’d say that even though one can cry the primacy of the written source or say such concerns are minor and petty, I’d argue it behooves us to consider carefully the question of skin colour considering the audience for Peter Jackson et al is vast and spread across a wide age group and skin colour. Small things, can make a big difference. Just ask a hobbit.

    E.

  5. In Lord of the Rings Online (Which, arguably, sticks to the source material much more than the movies did), you can have Hobbits of various origins and I’m pretty sure some of them can have a darker skin tone.

    Seems a bit stupid to me. I don’t see why it’s a problem that this woman is of Pakistani origin. She’ll have make-up on, she’ll be in costume – Most people wouldn’t notice or really care as it could be passed off as her coming from another region of the Shire.

  6. Jesse – well, that’s certainly something.

    Eric – you know, you really should start a non-fiction-based blog. Some of your comments deserve to be placed above the comments section in their own post! I heard a good deal about The Last Airbender’s racism, which was rather widespread wasn’t it? I’ve not seen the film myself, so can’t comment, but I’m optimistic that given the film industry is more culturally aware, and given the reach of the internet in expressing opinion, this sort of thing will filter out over time.

    Dwagginz – that’s fascinating re: the computer games differing. I had no idea about that.

  7. Haha, found a source for what I mean:
    http://lorebook.lotro.com/wiki/Nationality:Harfoot
    It’s a bit slow loading, but it’s also supported by the Tolkien Gateway, which describes them as having a skin tone range between “nut-brown” and “white”:
    http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Hobbits

    So, basically, I don’t think they had grounds to say “No” to her based on skin colour.

  8. Thanks for the links, Dwagginz – does it say what kid of nut? Peanut? Brazil Nut? πŸ™‚

  9. Sadly not :p And, Mark, you should know peanuts aren’t nuts!

  10. Commented on it on my blog, Mark πŸ™‚

    This isn’t a limited problem either. Some people are expressing disquiet over HBO’s GAME OF THRONES due to the lack of high-profile black roles (although the books do feature more notable roles of colour as the series progresses), although I’m not sure you can accuse the studio behind THE WIRE (with its 70%+ black cast) as being racist. Still, it’s a shame they ignored the fan suggestion that Bronn (who is only vaguely described in the books) could be played by a black actor (preferably Idris Elba) with no real problems.

    More notably, some people went seriously ape when MERLIN started two years ago with a black actress in the role of Guenivere with no explanation for how this happened in a historical context. Of course, as the show has gone on it’s become clear that MERLIN isn’t set in historical post-Roman, early Christian Britain at all, but in its own generic fantasyland with a very different cultural mix. Still, some people are still moaning about this to this day. Personally I think it’s laudable to highlight strong female and minority roles on a show that is aimed (at least partially) at children.

  11. You’re too kind Mark, unless that’s just a polite way of saying my comments are too long.

    I’ll throw it back your way and suggest that you generate both good topics and the lively discussion of them.

    Keep up the good work,

    E.

  12. Hi Adam – thanks for the context there, that’s very useful. That’s interesting regarding people kicking off about black characters being included; and as you say, all the more ridiculous considering it’s fantasyland.

    Eric – not at all! Just that they’re always well-written and deserve a top-spot rather than people having to click to read.

  13. My spouse and I just finished watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand. It has a diverse cast; the filmmakers clearly made diversity part of the landscape they wanted to show. (Yes, Rome had a diverse population in that day, but producers could have ignored it — and they did not.)

    I believe the show was filmed in New Zealand.