Tuesday 30 November 2010

Racism in casting The Hobbit?

 (I can't tell you how much I've wanted to use the Elrond Facepalm again)

Yeah, this old chestnut's raised its ugly spectre again.

Is there a bit of racism going on during the casting of The Hobbit? If you are to believe what WENN is reporting then yes. According to the plagiarising outlet a "British actress claimed she was turned down for a role in the film because of her skin colour.

Naz Humphreys, who has Pakistani heritage, attended an audition in the New Zealand city of Hamilton last week but alleges she was rejected because movie bosses only wanted "pale-skinned" actors.

She tells the Waikato Times, "It's 2010 and I still can't believe I'm being discriminated against because I have brown skin. The casting manager basically said they weren't having anybody who wasn't pale-skinned. I would love to be an extra. But it just seemed like a shame because obviously hobbits are not brown or black or any other colour.

"They all look kind of homogenised beige and all derived from the Caucasian gene pool."

Comparisons to The Last Airbender ring especially hollow because the races in the world of the show were quite clearly delineated: the Water Tribes are clearly Eskimo, the Airbender culture are clearly Tibetan, the Fire Nation clearly Chinese in culture, and so forth. Changing what are clearly Eskimo and Tibetan characters into what are just as clearly pale Caucasians is an absolute affront to a television show which was notable in presenting ethnic minorities in a culture normally dominated by white people. (I know it must seem like I'm beating a dead horse, but really, that film infuriated me.)

The situation is absolutely not comparable to The Hobbit. Middle-earth is explicitly prehistoric Europe, the cultures and people therein being explicitly based upon Norse mythology, among others.

In 1938 J.R.R. Tolkien sent a letter to his American publisher in where he described a Hobbit, "I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of 'fairy' rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf)."

So Tolkien never did describe the color of skin Hobbits had but he did describe the men of the south that Sauron used as his solidiers as swarthy (dark skinned).

I do have to point out that Tolkien did, in fact, describe the colour of Hobbits' skin - albeit obliquely - in "Concerning Hobbits," first of the four-part prologue of The Lord of the Rings:

Before the crossing of the mountains the Hobbits had already become divided into three somewhat different breeds: Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides. The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides. The Stoors wer broader, heavier in build; their feet and hands were larger, and they preferred flat lands and riversides. The Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair, and they were taller and slimmer than the others; they were lovers of trees and of woodlands.

The Harfoots had much to do with Dwarves in ancient times, and long lived in the foothills of the mountains. They moved westward early, and roamed over Eriador as far as Weathertop while the others were still in the Wilderland. They were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit, and far the most numerous. They were the most inclined to settle in one place, and longest preserved their ancestral habit of living in tunnels and holes.


The Fallohides, the least numerous, were a northerly branch.

So we can see that not only did Tolkien describe the Harfoots as "browner of skin" than other Hobbits, but they were the most numerous branch, with the lightest-skinned Hobbits, the Fallohides, being the least numerous.  However, it should be noted that many Fallohides intermarried with Harfoot nobility, and that strains of Fallohide can be seen even to the end of the Third Age:

In Eriador they soon mingled with the other kinds that had preceded them, but being somewhat bolder and more adventurous, they were often found as leaders or chieftains among clans of Harfoots or Stoors. Even in Bilbo's time the strong Fallohidish strain could still be noted among the greater families, such as the Tooks and the Masters of Buckland.

So what to make of that? Quite obviously there's a different between "browner of skin" and "dark skin," but without knowing Ms Humphreys tone it's impossible to say whether she would work.  Nonetheless, most actors in The Hobbit would be undergoing some substantial makeup and costuming: wigs, feet, ears, etc.  So if she's suitably complected to fit in with other Hobbits, why not? It isn't as if this is a primary character being cast.

Of more concern to me would be eye and hair colour.

They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown... Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking.
 - "Concerning Hobbits"

One could argue over what constitutes "browner skin," but "bright-eyed" and "red-cheeked" tend to be less arguable. The latter in particular is common of paler complections than brown ones.

However, it should be noted that the Harfoots are the most common of the Hobbits: just about any Hobbit who isn't a main character would be a Harfoot, and that all the major Hobbit characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have links to the Harfoots. That said, Bilbo and the Fellowship members would've likely been of paler complection than their fellows: Pippin was a Took, who were mainly of Fallohide descent, and so had paler skin and almost golden hair (*glares pointedly at the very brunette interpretation in the Jackson trilogy, one of many sins commited against my favourite Hobbit*). Merry's mother was a Took, and the Brandybucks already have a considerable Fallohide strain.  Bilbo's mother was a Took as well.

This is all skirting the issue, though, that the Hobbits are designed to be white, in a setting that is meant to be prehistoric Europe, in a species where there isn't really that much genetic diversity beyond some tribes' skin being browner and others' being lighter.  That said, I wouldn't complain about hearing of Pakistani Hobbits, as long as they didn't break suspension of disbelief.

While still a fantasy, Middle Earth is supposed to take place in Europe eons ago but it's characters are based on English folk and English culture.

Imagine a fantasy written about the ancient history of the Americas, Africa or Asia, it's people, and it's culture. Would you expect to see any white, blonde and blue eyed people hanging out? The answer is no.

That didn't stop The Last Airbender, of course.

However, there's an extra layer of nonsense ladeled on this roast of fail: apparently the casting agent responsible has been sacked.

A casting agent working on director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was fired from the production after placing ads in a regional New Zealand newspaper seeking extras with “light skin tones,” according to Agence France-Presse. The casting agent was also reported to have told a prospective background extra, a woman of Pakistani heritage named Naz Humphreys, that she wasn’t suitable to play a Hobbit because of her skin color. According to The Waikato Times, video footage shows the casting agent telling people at an 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.” A spokesman for Jackson’s production company told Agence France-Presse that the casting director, who was contracted by the film, was never directed to make any restrictions based on skin color. “No such instructions were given,” the spokesman said. “The crew member in question took it upon themselves to do that and it’s not something we instructed or condoned,” adding, “It’s something we take very seriously.”

While I suppose the agent could've been a lot more tactful, to fire him/her for adhering to some semblance of verisimilitude to the source material is depressingly predictable. The immediate denial that the restrictions were mandated in the brief is most telling, since I seriously doubt they would actually cast anyone of Pakistani descent as a Hobbit without plentiful makeup. Thus, instead of being upfront about it, they would weasel their way out by simply not calling back any non-whites for the shoot, and alleging that they were merely picking those "most suitable to the role."  If that proves to be the case, then that would be cowardly nonsense.

What's more, I think the agent merely thought they were showing some initiative.  Can you remember any dark-skinned Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring?  No?  Perhaps the agent was not only a fan of the books, but interested in keeping with the precedent of the previous films, where every single Hobbit I can recall looked like the proverbial Daily Mail reader.

Now, I had my problems with the Hobbits in the trilogy, but since The Hobbit is regrettably going to be more or less a continuation/"prequel" to The Lord of the Rings films, it seems that they're going to keep in their style.  As such, it just seemed pertinent to make sure everything seemed as it was there. The original trilogy certainly wasn't free of questionable casting decisions, such as casting Maori as the Haradrim instead of Arabs (so substituting one ethnicity for another makes it less "racist" because...?), so perhaps everyone's a bit on edge and eager to allay fears of perceived racism.

Of course, given the hilarious and undoubtedly false rumours that there were going to be black Hobbits a couple of months ago, a Pakistani Hobbit seems relatively tame in comparison.

Ultimately, I wouldn't mind a Pakistani actor playing a nameless background Hobbit with no lines or impact on the plot.  Or an Indian, Egyptian, Persian, Arab, Berber, or any similar individual.  The important thing is that they have to look sufficiently white to pass as a fantasy midget with pointy ears and furry feet indigenous to an environment akin to Medieval England in the final film.  If I can deal with a half-Hawaiian Conan, I can deal with a Pakistani Hobbit.  I just hope that this doesn't blow up into another ludicrous row, since there are far more worthwhile arguments and criticisms to deal with.  Like the alleged female character, the casting sheet, and whatnot.

That said, a black Hobbit does have a sort of morbid appeal...


  1. This is where political correctness trumps independent thought and common sense. Should Hollywood do another re-make of Shaft using a white actor? No, that would be racism but casting Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury in the upcoming Avengers movie is fine.

    Only in Hollyweird.

  2. This sort of thing is why I'm glad there'll never be a film adaptation of The Worm Ouroboros. I'd have a nerd-rage aneurysm at what they'd undoubtedly do to it. (It's bad enough they got hold of Howard and Tolkien.)

  3. Too true, Atom Kid. In fairness, though, Nick Fury is black in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, which the films seem to be based on. I don't like it any more than I'd like a black James Bond - as I've said before, why hijack a white character and not make up a new one that's black from the beginning? - but at least it has precedents in the comics.

    Scott, I can imagine exactly the sort of monstrosity they'd come up with: a terminal lack of subtlety would result in Demonlanders just like Tim Curry in Legend, dwarves would look like D&D cast-offs, Witchlanders would look and act like witches, etc. Oh lord, what a mess that would be.

  4. If you look at it from the perspective of movie consistency, most of the hobbits in the LOTR movies were pretty pale.

    "One of these hobbits is not like the others. One of these hobbits does not belong." Yes, that was sesame street teaching racism, or at best segregation.

  5. Exactly, Budd: hardly any of the Hobbits at Bilbo's party could be considered anything other than white, nary a brown-skinned extra in sight.

  6. All the "good guys" in the LOTR movies were pale. It actually muddled issues much more -- no clearly dark-skinned woses, no darker-skinned chaps in Gondor. No black people or Asians whatsoever. Instead, we get a world where only white people apparently exist, even if dressed in vaguely Arabic armour (the Easterling armour is so WRONG in the film I could scream), and the present Haradrim Maoris so heavily covered in make up you'd never tell.

    There was an essay on the web some time ago that talked about this issue, sadly, the website no longer exists. It was mocked for saying "drumonds, not junks" in relation to the Corsair ships, with Jackson's fans calling it nitpicking instead of actually reading the thing, which discussed orientalism in the film trilogy. Sigh.

  7. The lack of the southern Gondorians (Prince Imrahil in particular) was particularly frustrating. I simply cannot see the justification for Aragorn and Co arriving with a bunch of ghosts, instead of the thousands of Gondorian troops liberated by the ghosts as in the story. It would've taken up no extra screen time, it would've allowed for some darker-complected heroes, and it would've been far more satisfying for the Free Peoples to have earned their victory, instead of get a damned Ghosties-ex-Machina.

    Is this the essay of which you speak?


    In fact, I remember reading all the stuff here and thinking "man, he absolutely nailed it." His sketches in particular are great.

    Here's the rest of his site:


  8. The website's back? That's great!

    I remember searching for it before and getting 404-errors from all the links, but it seems the page is back after all this time. A brilliant set of essays that get lambasted as "nitpicky whining" by many Tolkien fans when they are probably the best pieces of film criticism concerning Jackson's LOTR on the internet.

  9. Agreed. I disagree on one or two points - I think Astin was terrible and Bloom was surprisingly good, for instance - but everything else is pretty solid, right down to the littlest of things.

  10. so tolkien did not write in a place for spike, queen latifah and whoopi? surely the supreme court does not rule this middle earth.