Thursday, December 2, 2010

No place for a brown hobbit

From The Age
Agent fired for light-skinned hobbit casting call
NEW ZEALAND: It has been beset by budget blowouts and strikes and now the casting agent for The Hobbit has been fired over accusations of racism.
Naz Humphreys, a Briton of Pakistani origin, was in New Zealand on holiday when she decided to try out for the part of a hobbit in the pounds 320million prequel to The Lord of the Rings films.
After travelling 80 miles (130km) and queueing for three hours to audition Ms Humphreys was told that she was not white enough to be a hobbit.
"The casting manager basically said they weren't having anybody who wasn't pale-skinned," Ms Humphreys, a social policy researcher, told The Waikato Times.
"It's 2010 and I still can't believe I'm being discriminated against because I have brown skin."
A video of the auditions taken by the newspaper reportedly shows a film company representative telling the crowd: "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 casting agent had also placed newspaper advertisements seeking extras with "light skin tones".
The advertisements listed the requirements for potential hobbits, including age (16-80), height - below 5ft 7in (1.7m) for men and 5ft 2in for women - and the requirement that women should have light skin.
A spokesman for WingNut Films, the production company owned by The Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson, said that no such instructions had been given to the casting company and described it as an unfortunate error.
"The crew member in question has been dismissed from the show," he said. "It's something we take very seriously."
Ms Humphreys said that she was a fan of the Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, with a height of 4ft 9in, had thought that she was perfect for the role of a hobbit.
"I would love to be an extra," she said. "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."
A spokesman for Sir Peter said: "All people meeting the age and height requirements are welcome to audition."
The two-part film is scheduled to begin filming in 3-D in February with Martin Freeman, a star of The Office television comedy series, playing the lead role of Bilbo Baggins.
In the meantime Ms Humphreys has started a Facebook group called "Hire hobbits of all colours! Say no to hobbit racism!"
What you reckon?

On one hand, Naz Humphreys (pictured left) is hardly that dark really, and I don't think anyone would have really noticed or cared if they caught a glimpse of a slightly swarthier hobbit in the background of a scene. Perhaps the guy in casting was being a bit too over-zealous.

On the other hand, we have to be realistic. If the people involved in the film want the hobbits to look fairly homogeneous, then they absolutely have the right to. Putting people of colour in TV or movie scenarios which you'd normally expect to be all-white often comes across as a bit silly. For example, having a black Guinevere in the UK series Merlin, or the black Moorish character in Robin Hood played by Morgan Freeman. Leave aside the alleged racist sentiments of author JRR Tolkien; if Tolkien's vision of the hobbit race was that they all had pale skin, then so be it.

What does irk me is the film industry's tradition of white-washing movies that should rightly have an ethnic cast. For example, how the Asian-inspired cartoon world of The Last Airbender somehow became mostly white for the film adaptation. Or how a real-life group of predominantly Asian-American blackjack card-counters became entirely Caucasian in the film adaption, 21. Or the story of Chinese-Australian war hero Billy Sing, played by a white Australian in the film made about his life. Or casting John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan. I could go on.

So fair is fair. If you are brown, don't automatically expect that you can play a role that almost everybody associates with pale skin, and then cry racism when you get rejected. And if you are a casting agent for a role in which the protagonists are meant to be brown or Asian, don't cast a white person. Deal?


  1. I also noticed the casting with Avatar and I don't think a lot of people who aren't Asian understand my sentiments. Did you notice the casting for the live action DragonBall movie and how they cast Justin Chatwin to play Goku? That was majorly offensive considering that the original Goku character from the Japanese anime is based off of Chinese folklore. And we do appear in movies, we're either portrayed as exotics or nerds. Offensive is an understatement, but we do live in a society where the standard of beauty is considered the Caucasian person.

  2. as i mentioned elsewhere, jrr expressed conventional racial attitudes of his time (he would be racist today, totally mainstream then). this is more evident in the silmarillion than in the more well known works. basically the people of the northwest of middle earth are the only ones who stand with the light, and what is good. the people of the east are 'sallow' and those of the south are brown and black, and they follow sauron and his dark master. only the three nations of men of the northwest manage to hold true. the racial element isn't a subtext, it's a natural outgrowth of the european thinking of the time.

    as for the hobbits, they're proto-typed on middle class english gents. so of course they're white.

  3. @ Razib:
    jrr expressed conventional racial attitudes of his time
    All too true. Interesting that someone with such a vivid imagination was seemingly unable to think outside the square in terms of the racial lens of his time.