I come down closer to Jamelle Bouie’s side of the Hobbit argument than Adam Serwer’s. Jamelle argues that basically Tolkien’s story is one of the British Isles, and that the mythological backdrop of Middle-Earth is taken from Nordic and British myth. Therefore it makes sense to have light-skinned Hobbits.
To draw from a brief conversation I had with Shani Hilton on the subject, with Middle-Earth, Tolkien tried to create a native mythology (of sorts) for the people of the British Isles. Given the creative vision of the films — as close to Tolkien’s depiction as possible — I don’t think it’s unreasonable to restrict casting to light-skinned people, just as it wouldn’t be unreasonable to only cast light-skinned people for movie adaptations of Beowulf, the Kalevala, or any one of the Celtic and Irish myths that Tolkien drew on for inspiration.
Serwer, on the other hand, argues that this makes more sense for historical fiction than for fantasy:
And yes, that’s Bad Santa‘s Tony Cox playing a Nelwyn warrior in Willow. Apparently adding a black character to a Tolkien-inspired rip-off didn’t ruin the movie.
A couple of thoughts here. First of all, Tolkien’s work treads the line between historical fiction and fantasy to some degree; he’s not wholly inventing a new world, after all. He’s drawing real parallels to our own world. It is an analogous work far more than many other epic fantasies.
Second, Tolkien’s world is self-contained rather than open-ended fantasy. It is comprised of a single mythological framework. This is in stark contrast to the work of C.S. Lewis, whose fantasy dips into all sorts of mythological pots. Lewis’s fantasy is motley – Narnia is not an extended metaphor for Great Britain; and while Tolkien is doing battle with the notion of modernity and industrialization, Lewis is far more interested in using fantasy to talk about theology and salvation. Many other fantasy writers are just world-building, spinning tales. Some have very self-contained worlds, wherein racial and historical consistency is important to the work as a whole (think George R. R. Martin’s books – the various regions produce various skin-tones, much like our own world), and some don’t (the Discworld books).
In other words, casting black dwarves or Asian centaurs in the motley and utterly fantastical stories of C.S. Lewis would make perfect sense; casting black Hobbits in Middle-Earth would put a ripple in an otherwise coherent and self-contained world. It might not make that big of a difference to movie-goers, true. But the makers of those films are trying to remain true to Tolkien’s vision, and this seems like a reasonable, and certainly not racist way of doing that. If they did cast some darker skinned Hobbits, I seriously doubt anyone would care or even think twice. There are more important ways to remain true to the story. Like not changing huge chunks of it to make it more of a romance, and not cutting out the ending in order to have fifteen farewell sequences in a row. (Yes, I am still bitter about The Return of the King and its bizarre and senseless finale which cut out the entire Hobbit rebellion against Saruman. Damn you Peter Jackson!!!)
Also – Willow was fun, but it had none of the deeper historical and mythological coherency of Middle-Earth.
One more thought. Jamelle adds this at the end of his post:
When it comes to art, especially art that draws from myth and legend, there is legitimate space for works that eschew racial and ethnic diversity. To me at least, the problem has less to do with Tolkien’s lily white vision, and more to do with the fact that few people have bothered to film other mythologies for a mass audience; for my part, there should be African epics that feature African people, Japanese epics that feature Japanese people, and so on and so forth.
But there are! At least Asian ones. Think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, there have been quite a few Asian fantasies in recent years. I would not begrudge their casting directors sticking with Asian actors, either. It would have been weird to see a white guy in Crouching Tiger. And that doesn’t mean I’m racist against white people.
Update. Adam Serwer rightly points out that I don’t tackle his claim that black Westerner’s “have as much of a claim to broad Western canon as whites” and that “a white dude would be weird in crouching tiger because there are no whites who can credibly make that claim”.
I agree that black Westerner’s do have every bit the claim to the Western canon as whites – no argument there at all – and in ways that whites do not in Asia. However, even if whites did have a historical presence in China – say they had been brought there as slaves in some mirror image of what white Westerners did to Africans – it would still be strange to have white people in a movie about ancient China, even a fantastical movie like Crouching Tiger.
This doesn’t diminish black peoples’ claim to the Western canon at all, so far as I can tell. Tolkien’s world included explanations for everything. And having black Hobbits strikes me as needing some sort of explanation – just like having whites in Crouching Tiger would require explanation.
Nor am I arguing against blacks ever appearing in any historical or classical reinterpretation of literary works on film. Serwer also mentions that Denzel Washington did fine in Much Ado and it didn’t really diminish that work in any way. But Shakespeare has a long history of being interpreted in all sorts of interesting ways – think of the WWII version of Richard III, the Los Angeles gang version of Romeo and Juliet, or countless theatrical interpretations that toy with the era, costumes, gender, etc. (All female lesbian version of Hamlet, for instance.) It works in Shakespeare because there’s a tradition of that sort of reimagining of Shakespeare’s work, and because people are constantly making Shakespeare films and performing his plays. You almost feel obligated to experiment with his work. LOTR is different on one level because there is really only one film version of these stories, no live-action versions.
But all this is really just argument for argument’s sake. I really think most people wouldn’t think twice about a black Hobbit, or about a lily-white Shire for that matter. People are more interested in the fact that there are goblins, giant spiders, elves, and dragons in those stories than the racial composition of the little people.