Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Racial profiling in Middle-earth?

A casting director working on the two Hobbit movies has been fired after placing an advert in the local newspaper specifying the need for 'lighter-skinned' people and turning away a woman of Pakistani descent, saying she had the wrong skin colour to play a Hobbit. When the casting director was fired by Peter Jackson, who states there are no restrictions on race when applying for the role of an extra in the film.

This has triggered an interesting debate online, with some crying "Political correctness gone mad!" against others pointing out that a 2010 movie should reflect modern multicultural sensibilities against a few frothing that "Tolkien was a racist!" (Tolkien, of course, once turning down a German publisher in the 1930s asking for the reprint rights to The Hobbit, finding his questions about his racial heritage and whether he had any Jewish blood to be insulting, Tolkien going as far to say that he was sorry to not be related to that gifted people). As it turns out, though, this is a bit of a non-issue. Tolkien himself said that the Harfoots (one of the three different ethnic groups of Hobbits) had darker skin than their compatriots, as did inhabitants of southern Gondor (which had a Mediterranean climate), whilst it is likely that the men of Dale and Laketown (being in the equivalent of Eastern Europe) could also have a more multicultural feel to them as well, so even within the context of the original stories there is no reason why non-white characters could not be present.

This issue has also raised its head with regards to other recent TV projects. The BBC series Merlin was initially derided by some commentators for having a black actress playing Guenivere and not providing any accurate historical explanation for it. Later episodes have revealed that rather than being set in historical post-Roman Britain, Merlin is in fact set in an ill-defined fantasyland called 'Albion' which has a different cultural mix to the historical source of the legends (not to mention a massive mountain range dwarfing anything in the real Britain), and thus the incongruity is not particularly relevant. More to the point, Merlin is a family show aimed partially at young children, and as such showing positive female and minority role models is laudable.

We are also likely to see this issue raised again when Game of Thrones airs next year. In the books Westeros does not have an indigenous black population, although the people of Dorne have Spanish and Moorish features. The Summer Islands to the south of the continent do provide a number of black characters, however, such as King's Landing brothel-owner Chataya and her daughter (we have no word if they are in the TV series, however), the crew of a Summer Islander 'swan ship', and exiled prince Jalabher Xho, who despite being frequently mentioned hasn't even had a line of dialogue in the books so far. In Daenerys's storyline set on the eastern continent there is a much greater racial mix going on, but some fans have expressed disappointment that HBO didn't take advantage of some characters' vague descriptions and origins in the books to cast actors of colour in a higher-profile role. For example, there was a strong, 'Idris Elba for Bronn' movement for a while (Idris Elba being the excellent British actor who played Stringer Bell in The Wire and Vaughn in Ultraviolet).

An interesting debate, and one that is likely to run and run.


Anonymous said...

"the casting director was fired by Peter Jackson"

Taking into consideration that pretty much everyone in the LOTR movies where white, except the villains, Peter Jackson really does seam like a hypocrite.

redwall_hp said...

Actually, Albion isn't a random fantasy land. It's what the pre-Roman inhabitants of the area referred to it as. The ancient dragon's reference to the land as "Albion" is likely because he has lived there since far before the Romans came into play. Let us not forget that the Celts were living in the British Isles long before the rest of Europe decided to invade.

Anonymous said...

NOOOO!!!! sorry but I cant even imagine idris as bronn.

Unknown said...

As I see it, Middle Earth is a small realm, something that has different people acting more like clans than races. The Shire has also been described as a pretty puny place. To have different races inside a small population makes no sense. It reminds me of that bad joke about the 99 white sheep and the 1 black.

The Hobbits, described as looking like people, but small and with weird legs, are even more likely to not be colored. I mean, Tolkien focused on the legs, but ignored the fact that some are weirdly colored?

This also ignores the fact that they are all different species, thus not subject to the same coloration mechanisms. I wonder, will they also have the same issues with elves, then? What about Sauron? Can't the eye be black? Dwarfs should be black as well, even if they do live in caves and, if you consider them human-like, they should look more like in The Descent.

I have nothing about minorities, but no one would cast Christopher Lee as Arwen and it is not because he is old. Or white.

Adam Whitehead said...

I'm aware of the origins of the term 'Albion'. However, in MERLIN it does not appear that 'Albion' is the British Isles. It's not an island (that we've seen so far), it has a colossal mountain range that looks like the Alps (because that sequence was filmed in the Alps) and there are no references to Christianity or the Romans. It could be a fantasised version of France, perhaps, but I suspect they're going to leave it intentionally vague.

The Shire is over 150 miles across, which is reasonable in size, and the map of Middle-earth in the books covers about 2,000 miles. Hobbits also immigrated to the Shire is successive waves from the far east over the course of several centuries and are divided into three ethnic groups anyway, so there is certainly the scope for non-lily-white Hobbits to be knocking around.

"Taking into consideration that pretty much everyone in the LOTR movies where white, except the villains, Peter Jackson really does seam like a hypocrite."

I remember quite a few of the villains being white, like Gollum, Saruman, Denethor, Wormtongue etc etc.

Anonymous said...

"I remember quite a few of the villains being white, like Gollum, Saruman, Denethor, Wormtongue etc etc."

You misunderstood my intent, though maybe not my words. Sure, most of the villains are white, but the very few people in the movies that are not white are villains.

I’m pretty certain Tolkien`s original intent was to give the British people a myth of their own, because he felt they didn’t really have one. I think it has been said in several of the documentaries about him. Therefore I don’t think its wrong for most of the characters to be white, since they are supposed to be British or Europeans.

Lagomorph Rex said...

That was always something, to be honest, which bugged me about the movie Willow. The whole village was pale, except for Tony Cox.

At least when they had the briefly lived television show "Roar" (and with good reason mind you) in the 90's they contrived that the "Token" minority character had gotten to Ireland by way of a wrecked Roman slave ship. I could buy that, and I have to give the writers credit for at least attempting to explain it.