Bettenridge’s law of headlines dictates that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” In the case of whether or not J.R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a fantasy land that has space for people of colour, it’s unfortunately not that simple.
The full title for the television series taking place in the same universe as the critically acclaimed The Lord of the Rings was announced just this past month, with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power acting as a prequel set thousands of years before the original trilogy of films. Soon after followed 23 individual posters featuring the hands of different characters, a startling development for those who hadn’t been closely following casting news for the show.
As briefly discussed in my first post this year, there’s nothing more emblematic of our present-day culture than division and polarization. With every announcement decisions must be made and opinions cemented, dictating what side of any particular issue you find yourself on. To say that the same is true for the existence of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, [and] People of Colour) in a historically lily-white franchise is putting it lightly. The following tweet made by the amusingly named (at the time of this writing) “guy online” highlights the conflict accordingly:
Knowing this is the case and having these camps laid out in such stark contrast makes it awkward for me to admit that I’ve found myself in a place where I’m also side-eyeing production for casting actors of colour in various roles, a sentiment that on the surface places me in some admittedly unpleasant company. Let me explain-Almost as a baseline, I’m generally quite pleased when I see that BIPOC talent being given opportunities in film or television, especially when those roles veer outside of the stereotypes that the entertainment industry has often placed them. On one level I’m genuinely happy for actors like Sir Lenny Henry, a Black British man who will be portraying a Harfoot, a precursor of the Hobbits most of us are familiar with. There’s even textual evidence to suggest that this is accurate to the source material, as the prologue of The Lord of the Rings cites that this breed was “browner of skin than other hobbits.”
At this point I almost hesitate to keep writing, as heading over to YouTube to grab a link for you to watch the trailer for the upcoming series is a sickening reminder of the kind of company I absolutely do not want to keep:
The “content” seen above is, to keep with my general rule not to use profanity in these posts, hot garbage. It’s designed to draw clicks by further enraging those who are already angry about the casting, a melange of racists and misogynists and others. The thing is, I think, or am at least hopeful, that it’s possible to promote and desire diversity and representation in media while still wanting it to be done well.
I want to believe that it’s possible to be excited for Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova landing a star role in a high-profile project while still feeling uncomfortable that he’s playing the elf Arondir (as seen on the right). It was a feeling I brought to a group of BIPOC friends who likewise want to see more faces like ours on screens both large and small.
An initial response that cropped up a few times was that this smacks of Hollywood virtue signalling. To put it another way, those in the entertainment industry are all too aware of the largely Caucasian landscape they’ve created and would like to make amends. A particular point that I couldn’t get out of my head was that The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth as a universe and franchise, is not “for” some people.
My initial reaction was to balk at such a strong statement. Doesn’t art (good art, and I tend to lump Tolkien’s writing beneath this umbrella) have the ability to transcend barriers and appeal to almost any person of any race, colour, or creed? After mulling it over for several hours I struck on the fact maybe the idea isn’t so much that The Lord of the Rings as an entity doesn’t have room within its fanbase for BIPOC audiences but that it doesn’t have room for BIPOC on-screen talent. Middle-earth has historically not been a place for actors who aren’t white.
It feels almost regressive to bring up questions of a fictional world’s internal logic, yet again feeling as if we’re veering disturbingly close to a certain kind of rage-bait rhetoric, but I think the point still stands. If Amazon is creating a series that’s meant to be a prequel of sorts to Peter Jackson’s films then why don’t those works contain any BIPOC actors? (Without heavy layers of makeup and prosthetics, of course.)
It feels like retroactively diversifying a world that has already firmly established itself in our public consciousness as being almost exclusively Caucasian, in part due to Tolkien pulling so much inspiration from northern European literature and in part due to Hollywood being much paler both in front of and behind the camera in the late ’90s and early ’00s compared to today. Notice I wrote “almost exclusively white,” which finally allows me to personally answer the question posed by the title of this blog post-
The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth already include people of colour
It’s just that they’re villains. To be more specific, the Haradrim and the Easterlings are both groups of Men who sided with Sauron during the War of the Ring during the Third Age (in other words, they allied with The Dark Lord AKA The One Enemy AKA Big Satan Analogue).
The former, also known as Southrons, are described in The Two Towers (according to Wikipedia, since I couldn’t find a copy to search through on Google Books): “as having ‘brown’ skin, with black plaits of hair braided with gold.” They hailed from a land south of Gondor and Mordor. Peter Jackson and co. decided to base the Haradrim in the corresponding film on 12th century Saracens, as seen below.
The “wild Easterlings” are Men who were corrupted by Sauron and who originally lived in the far east of Middle-earth. Tolkien described them, and this is a big oof, as “slant-eyed.” A number of regiments make a very brief appearance during The Return of the King, and looked like this:
To set aside any inkling of conversation about whether Tolkien himself was a racist, and there’s plenty of evidence to support either side of that debate, I want to acknowledge that both of these groups are strongly othered and not afforded the depth that Elves, Dwarves, and even Orcs are (the latter, at the bare minimum, had dialogue in the novels). The author never got around to developing languages for either group as he did the aforementioned races, and precious few are even named.
Not to belabour my point, Black and brown people exist in Middle-earth, and they have from almost the very beginning! If the creative minds behind The Rings of Power wanted to feature actors of colour, which I want to recognize as laudable in its own right, they had options! The reason they decided not to is because it wouldn’t be easy.
That’s not to say that that producing a series that cost upwards of $100 million is “easy,” but let me put it another way. If you want to introduce a Black character in your Lord of the Rings show which one is easier: creating a new character from a group of people who don’t have a single spoken line of English across all six Peter Jackson films OR creating a new character that’s a Black Dwarven princess.
The creatives, and I use that term mockingly, at Amazon had the opportunity to delve into Tolkien’s text and invent and explore and expand on what’s there and I think it’s beyond optimistic to assume they gave the Haradrim or Easterlings even a second thought. After all, why try to add nuance and three-dimensionality to races that are portrayed solely as corrupted and evil across Lord of the Rings media?
Lindsey Weber, executive producer of the series, told Vanity Fair that: “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.” The truth is that Middle-earth, much like our own regular Earth, contains people and cultures who have been frequently depicted as cliched and foreign to the point of barely being seen as human at all. The Rings of Power was a chance for them to show the Easterlings before Sauron, the Haradrim as their own empire and nation unique from the Rohirrim or the Dúnedain of Gondor. But they didn’t. People of colour have canonically always belonged in Middle-earth, but whether or not they receive the spotlight has a depressingly obvious answer.