A Ban on Brown Hobbits and a Protest of Black Superheroes


Last month, a casting agent for Peter Jackson’s latest film, an adaptation of The Hobbit was fired after he dismissed an actor for being "too dark" to play a hobbit. This month, a group is protesting the casting of Black British actor Idris Elba in the movie Thor. These are fictional -- fantasy -- characters. What gives?

In late November, a casting agent for Peter Jackson’s latest film, an adaptation of The Hobbit was fired after he dismissed an actor for being "too dark" to play a hobbit. The actor, Naz Humphreys , who is of Pakistani heritage, went public after attending a casting call in Hamilton, New Zealand. According to AFP,

The independent contractor who made the comments and placed an advertisement in a local newspaper specifying female hobbit extras "should have light skin tones" had been dismissed, a spokesman for Jackson's Wingnut Films said. "No such instructions were given, the crew member in question took it upon themselves to do that and it's not something we instructed or condoned.”

....The Waikato Times said video footage showed the casting agent telling people at the audition: "We are looking for light-skinned people. I'm not trying to be -- whatever. It's just the brief. You've got to look like a hobbit."

hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Image courtesy New Line.

Since a hobbit is a mythological creature, conceived by author J.R.R. Tolkien, who didn’t explicitly describe the hobbits as "Caucasian and native English-speaking" (even though some have clearly debated it), what gives? This is not the first time the "White-washing" of characters has been debated, and not the only time when fictional characters written as either non-White or of no discernable racial identification are cast as Caucasian once adapted to film or television. A recent example of this was the film Avatar: The Last Airbender -- though the children’s cartoon took place in an all-Asian world, when adapted to film, all of the characters were suddenly White.

The Hobbit is not only an example of blatant discrimination based on physical characteristics of a human being. It is an example of discrimination that extends to a character that is not only not human, but a mystical creature which does not exist in reality (or at least my reality, that is). To me, this is mind puzzling. This particular case is an example of the purposeful "Whiteification" of mainstream popular culture, in which industry executives and workers feel that, in order to appease a larger audience, they have to make them as socially palatable and relatable to the general public as possible -- which means they need to strip out the qualities that might suggest otherwise.

This particular news item sadly justifies two arguments that, while evident to some (who have been repeating the same complaint over and over again), are conveniently dismissed by the majority of the public:

It’s hard out there for ethnic minority actors.

Some folks would pull out statistics now and say, “Well, isn’t the majority of the population in North America White? So shouldn’t all the movies, television shows, music video, print publication, online publications, mainstream newspapers be populated by White people?" Call me a liberal pinko, but an all-White media doesn’t adequately reflect the real world. People from various ethnicities, cultures, genders and sexual orientations intermingle with each other every day. There are real stories and shared commonalities that all people have. The problem is, is that when it comes to mainstream entertainment outlets, it is more acceptable if those stories come from a singular point of view.

Because of this, stories that originally were based on ethnic minority characters are often played by White actors in film and television -- which means less work for ethnic minority actors. Actor Angelina Jolie pissed off a lot of brown folks playing Marianne Pearl, a biracial woman, in A Mighty Heart. Though Jolie's partner Brad Pitt said this about the role: “We hope the film can increase understanding between people of all faiths"), many actors tend to shy away from addressing their controversial decisions regarding the intricacies of race- based casting in mainstream media. From Racialicious:

Clearly, pictures of Mariane Pearl show that she has brown skin, curly hair and other features that indicate she is a brown woman. There are few good roles for women of color in Hollywood; thus I find it disturbing that Jolie would take this role.

Will Jolie tan her skin or apply burnt cork? Will she curl her hair and don dark brown contact lenses to achieve a look that a mixed-race/Latina woman like Halle Berry, Rae Dawn Chong, Jennifer Beals or Judy Reyes has naturally?

Jolie never publically addressed the controversy over her, a White woman, choosing to don a wig and darken her skin, versus politely turning down Pearl (who had asked Jolie to play her in the movie).

In the 2008 film 21, a movie based on the book Bringing Down the House -- about a group of Asian students who masterminded card-counting and were able to make a fortune in Las Vegas -- the main characters were suddenly White, with Asian characters moved to less prominent roles. From Angry Asian Man:

I must note that the movie's cast includes a couple of Asian American characters, played by Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira. They're part of the Blackjack team, and do have a (less prominent) place on the movie poster. It counts for something. I really am glad that these two are in the movie, apparently added later to mitigate some of the initial controversy stirred up by this casting nonsense. Sure, it feels like the producers are throwing us a bone. They are. What they're crafting is pure Hollywood falsity. But I'm happy to see that these two rising stars will get due exposure in a high-profile movie a lot of people are going to see. I'm okay with that. (I might have to take these statements back if/when I actually see them in the movie.)

Money (and religion and politics) and consumers dictate what mainstream Hollywood delivers.

In reference to The Hobbit, one of the reasons why I believe the casting director dismissed the actor because of her ethnicity was not because he is a virulent racist, but because perhaps, he knew that "light-skinned" Hobbits would be more economically and commercially viable to a mass audience. The film industry is a business; not a non-profit organization. If the general society holds preconceived notions of the "norm," why should things be different in a movie?

Here is a very telling comment from the Hobbit controversy as reported on Entertainment Weekly. While the opinion of one person, it seems to me to sum up how ethnic minorities can be viewed in "normative" film and television roles:

I mean why is she making this a race thing? This story was written way before she was born! This story is a classic and it is what it is. Everyone loves it just the way the story is and she can just shut her mouth. Now if they make Black, asian and pakinstan hobbits or elves or dwarfs I won't spend my money on the movie! This is no difference from a White person wanting to play the part of a Black person role!!!

While we wonder about the penchant for switching out characters of color for White ones, we've recently seen one direct result of the choice of a Black actor to portray a mythological character some believe should be White. Comics Alliance recently wrote about The Council of Conservative Citizens, a right-wing organization that is pissed that Black British actor Idris Elba will be playing Heimdall in Marvel Studios' Thor:

The CCC's unhappiness with Elba's appearance in Thor jibes with the material on its Statement of Principles page, where they assert that "the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people... that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character," and thus "oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind... to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races." The Statement also makes plain the organization's desire for the United States to be extremely Christian, curmudgeonly, and for its citizens to appear as hobbit-like as possible.

The organization has created a website, Boycott Thor, to protest the movie. From the website:

It's well known that Marvel is a company that advocates for left-wing ideologies and causes. Marvel front man Stan "Lee" Lieber boasts of being a major financier of left-wing political candidates. Marvel has viciously attacked the TEA Party movement, conservatives, and European heritage. Now they have taken it one further, casting a Black man as a Norse deity in their new movie Thor. Marvel has now inserted social engineering into European mythology.

Movie casting can be seen as not really an individual "racist" act, but a more insidious, normalized, removal of the "other" -- which, I argue, which should be more of a concern. Our world is culturally diverse, but you would never know it by watching films and television (and by reading, newspapers, mainstream magazine, journals and novels). The "normal" is not us. But it is a symptom of what we, the consumer, prefer -- what we will pay to consume and what we will not.

Televisual says this about the industry’s reluctance to Black actors:

It’s hard to assign blame. Surely, the industry’s partially at fault: too few Black/women directors, screenwriters, people above/below the line. But the industry also responds to what America wants, and year after year, movies led by White/men top the box office. Every once in awhile, something shakes the conventional wisdom -- Sex and the City, or films by Sandra Bullock, Tyler Perry and Will Smith -- but the conventional wisdom more or less remains because Hollywood is congenitally cautious. Once again, who’s to blame? Most films fail, and job security is hard to come by, so how much can we blame industry workers for not taking risks? I don’t know.

The recent The Hobbit meleé isn’t one of those issues were you can play the ahem, "race card" so quickly. It is way more insidious than one man’s belief system. It goes into the social conditioning, and what we are led to believe are normative images and symbols in our society, and whose opinions are valued and who are not when these casting decisions are made. And in some ways, we are all to blame for the lack of melanin in the film and television industry if we choose not to protest when these images -- or lack thereof -- appear on the screen.

Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

Writer: Exclaim!: www.exclaim.ca


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