Racist backlash follows book-to-TV series over actors of color existing in fantasy land
The long-awaited Lord of the Rings TV series debuted on Amazon Prime Video last week, but the casting choices became the news.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power cast shared a message Wednesday on social media saying it stands in solidarity “against the relentless racism, threats, harassment, and abuse some of our castmates of color are being subjected to on a daily basis.”
The statement went on to say that the world author J.R.R. Tolkien created is by definition multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic in having characters “defeat the forces of evil.”
“Our world has never been all white, fantasy has never been all white, Middle-earth is not all white. BIPOC belong in Middle-earth and they are here to stay,” the statement continues.
The show introduces us to various stars, but Sophia Nomvete, who plays the first Black female dwarf; Nazanin Boniadi, who plays a village healer; and Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays an elf, have become the target of racist online attacks with social media comments accusing the TV production of not being true to Tolkien’s works by casting actors of color and therefore creating characters of color.
Racism persists in our world so greatly that we imagine it also exists in a middle-Earth fantasy world. As in select viewers are hyper-focused on characters’ skin colors rather than their personalities and motives, missing elements of the story and the purpose of entertainment.
Colorblind casting for book-to-screen projects has dominated headlines over the last decade.
People were upset in 2012 when the The Hunger Games film featured the character Rue as a Black girl, played by Amandla Stenberg, and Thresh, a Black boy, played by Dayo Okeniyi. Both Rue and Thresh are described by author Suzanne Collins as having dark brown skin in the book series.
People were upset in 2016 when a Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play in London casted Noma Dumezweni, a Black woman, to play Hermoine Granger, who was famously played by Emma Watson, who is White, in the big-budget film series. Author J.K. Rowling at the time gave her blessing to the play, claiming Hermoine could be Black.
And people were really upset in 2019 when Halle Bailey, of R&B sister duo Chloe x Halle and Grown-ish fame, was casted as Ariel in Disney’s live-action version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The lead character was originally animated by Disney as a White girl with ketchup-red hair in the 1989 film.
For The Little Mermaid controversy, social media users fought back that Ariel was White, and all mermaids are White because they’re figments of European folklore. Though this is true, aquatic half-human and half-fish beings are central to folklore all over the world in countries who built civilizations around oceans and rivers like in Africa, Asia, and South America.
But yes, they’re not called mermaids everywhere because that’s a Middle English term meaning “sea maid,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. They’re called Mami Wata in the African diaspora, ningyo in Japan, and Iara in Amazonian Brazil, for example.
As you might be able to tell, I’m more of a mermaid person rather than a middle-Earth person, but that being said, I’m for diverse and inclusive fantasy. More authors of color are writing fantasy young adult novels to inspire readers who want to see that representation.
If there are blessings to pursue a book-to-screen project from the author or the author’s estate, then the casting shouldn’t be an issue to the audience because everything has been approved. For The Rings of Power, Simon Tolkien, the grandson of author J.R.R. Tolkien, served as a consultant on the project.
And sometimes authors don’t want colorblind casting. Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke revealed in 2018 that author Stephenie Meyer didn’t want some characters to be “diverse,” including the Cullen family and Edward Cullen, who was ultimately played by Robert Pattinson.
The author, who had been criticized for using the real-life Quileute Tribe in the Twilight series, argued that she wrote the characters with the assumption of them being White. She attached skin color to her characters, which is fine. This is why authors of color are creating their own characters with skin colors like theirs.
Tolkien’s first Lord of the Rings book was published in 1954. This author and his works are from the mid-twentieth century when diversity and inclusion was taking root, more in the court systems to desegregate schools amid the civil rights movement.
Though these works are from another time, positive interpretation of how these works fit into our current cultural landscape is welcomed. All that matters is the story still touches audiences, regardless of our racial and cultural differences.