The Hobbit: Racism in the Shire?

Many of you may not know that in addition to my being the editor of Inter-Galaxy Portal (the best place on the web for all things sci-fi/fantasy) I’m also an actress. A British South Asian actress, as it says on my resume. I’ve gotten roles both because of my appearance and also in spite of my appearance. I have also lost out on roles because of my appearance. So it was with much bemusement that I happened upon an article about a British Pakistani social researcher, Naz Humphreys, who was turned away from an extras call for the upcoming Hobbit movies for being “too brown.”

I must admit, I feel a little torn about this news. On the one hand, the makers of The Hobbit are being accused of racism, something that everybody in the industry knows happens all the time. Lets face it, acting is one of the few careers where, yes, you can get discriminated because of your race. And sometimes, well, there’s good reason for it. You can’t have an African American actor cast as a flying ace in WWII unless the actor is playing one of the Tuskegee Airmen. It would be historically inaccurate.
LOTR the Shire
On the other hand, the fact is that Middle Earth is a fantasy realm. As much as professor Tolkien based it on a very specific type of geography, it doesn’t negate the fact that yes, you could have a brown skinned Aragorn (although Viggo rocks!). Middle Earth isn’t actually England and its races needn’t reflect antiquated ideas of what a sword-wielding warrior or a hobbit should look like. But the LOTR trilogy isn’t the only genre movie guilty of this either. Look at the big brouhaha that occurred when Stan Lee said he wanted Will Smith to play Captain America. Suddenly fanboys everywhere were upset. It’s a tough call, especially when you’re adapting a piece of literary work where people have established ideas of what a character should “look” like. Personally, if we’re blind casting, I’d love to see Gina Torres as Wonder Woman. She’s got both the acting chops and the Amazonian build required to play that role. But sadly, it ain’t a perfect world.

Conversely, the BBC has been accused of going too far the opposite direction of Hollywood, who are, let’s face it, still a tad afraid of the marketability of non-white actors. In Merlin, they cast Angel Coulby, a bi-racial actress to portray the quintessential British (ie white) heroine, Guinevere. A character that has been portrayed by such decidedly pale actresses as Keira Knightley, Julia Ormond and Cherie Lunghi. Since I haven’t watched Merlin (no, I don’t have enough hours in the day to watch everything genre related) I can’t speak to how wise a casting decision it is, and I certainly don’t know how they explained it in the story, but I give them much credit for doing what it will take decades for Hollywood to do.
Ian Holm Bilbo Baggins
But going back to the LOTR scandal. It has clearly been big news all over the world and has even sparked a Facebook page titled “Say no to Hobbit racism.” Do I think this is fair? Actually, no. I think that Peter Jackson who both wrote and directed the LOTR made the creative decision to cast the movies based on what Professor Tolkien had indicated. And, even though there are references to brown-skinned hobbits, the fact is that the shire hobbits were written as fair skinned. Tokien even indicated that the Shire was located (somewhat) where Oxford is today. He set a precedent with LOTR. To suddenly see dark skinned hobbits in The Hobbit would be… odd. I think that it’s sad that he didn’t cast with more ethnic diversity, but that’s the direction that he chose to go.

The part of the article I do find fairly deplorable is that the casting agent was fired. We’re in a recession people! This casting director was doing what every casting director does on a daily basis: discriminates. Whether you’re too tall, too dark, too white, too fat, too whatever… This is what they do. And where the joke really gets funny is the notion that somehow now that this casting agent has been fired, everything is going to magically change on the set of The Hobbit. Yes, non-whites might be allowed to audition for a hobbit role now, but that still doesn’t mean they’ll get hired. It seems to me that the mistake the casting agent made (that caused he/she to get the sack) is actually vocalizing the unofficial casting rules. Do I agree with those casting guidelines? No. But in reading this news all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say “that’s Hollywood, Naz.”