Race Representation in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The absence of black actors in LOTR and The Hobbit has long been noted; the Desolation of Smaug has begun to (slightly) redress the balance

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you have been to the cinema in the last few weeks to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, then you may have spotted something new in the Tolkien-verse. During the scene in which the Dwarves arrive at Laketown, the camera switches from the action onto the faces of the crowd as they – wait a sec, were those black people? They were! Black people! In Middle Earth! Going about their Middle Earth business!

There have always been discussions of race and representation surrounding The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In LOTR, any and all people of colour are represented as being on the side of the dark lord Sauron. In 2010, a Hobbit casting agent was dismissed after advertising only for extras with ‘light skin tones’, a request not made or condoned by director Peter Jackson’s production.

The Tolkien fandom is home to more than a few staunch literary purists, some of whom are often heard to claim that the increasingly obvious absence of non-white Middle Earth residents is nothing sinister, but simply the way things are in the world that Tolkien created. In which, apparently, only one skin colour reigns supreme.

The main point of the case against people of colour having a place in Middle Earth seems to be this; that Tolkien ostensibly wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarallion and so forth in order to create a sort of English or European style fantasy mythology, and therefore the inclusion of black characters wouldn’t make sense, or be accurate. Unfortunately for the backers of this argument, it is utter tripe.

Even if you are intent on sticking to the ‘bookverse’, there is no getting away from the fact that it makes perfect sense for there to be black people living in Laketown. Laketown is populated by the former residents of the city of Dale, which was destroyed by Smaug. Tolkien described Dale as a trade city, a cosmopolitan hub, the kind of place where people of all races and backgrounds would come to do business, and to live. Black people living there would only be strange if we did indeed think that there are no black people in Middle Earth at all – a strange and ridiculous prospect, considering the extensive span and depth of Tolkien’s world.

But all the same, even if it weren’t possible to find any reference at all in the original text which could account for more racial diversity, this would still be no excuse for having no characters of colour in the films. Whether or not Tolkien envisioned his Middle Earth as being populated mostly or only by the white-skinned, it would not change the fact that Middle Earth is ours now. We can put Radagast on a sleigh pulled by giant rabbits, we can jam a Tauriel where there was no Tauriel before, and we can sure as hell have black people living in Laketown.

It is only a shame that none of the black characters we see in Laketown actually have any lines, or indeed take part in any serious action (this may change in the third film, of course). Even though it probably would have caused a racist social media flood of Hunger Games* proportions, it would have been great to see a few more black actors cast as named characters. Apart from the simple issue of denying jobs to black actors, casting people of colour as extras and very pointedly not as main characters suggests there is still much work to be done in changing the perceptions of race in fantasy films, and film as a whole.

To finish, Dan Schindel at Film School Rejects raises an interesting point:

“Once it’s been established that this universe is in fact not completely lily-white, I’m going to ask what happens to that diversity. This is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings series, after all, where the good guys are a monolith of Caucasian-ness. If there are…citizens of another race in this part of the realm, there are surely more elsewhere. It’s an odd case, caused by an increased sense of progressive awareness since the original films came out.”

Just one of the many problems with prequels.

* In case you missed it, in 2012 there was a deluge of racist Tweets following the release of The Hunger Games, mostly from fans of the book who clearly hadn’t been paying that much attention while reading. In the book, the characters of colour are either described as having ‘dark brown skin’, or their complexion is non-specific, leaving the casting open. Katniss herself is described as having ‘olive skin’. If you can bear to, you can take a look through a collection of some of the worst Tweets here.

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