Wednesday, July 27, 2005

LOTR = racist??!!?! (I don't think so...)

Gillies thinks that Lord of the Rings suffers from a lack of racial diversity. Well, I guess it does. After all, there are no lead characters depicted as non-white or performed by non-white actors and actresses. It is also true that the Peter Jackson movies and the Tolkien books incorporate a common crutch from the dominant ideology that white=good and dark=evil. This is unfortunate.

But admitting the above does not, I think, condemn this workas racist. I think the movies succeds in spite of their lack of diversity and not becuase of it. What's more, there is a VERY strong ecological/environmental theme that is very much in-line with the progressive politics of this country and the West in general.

I think this criticism of racial myopia (though perhaps accurate) is a cheap shot. I think it's something you say if you don't want to like these movies. Does Samuel L. Jackson save the Star Wars prequels from their obvious failings in the realm of dialog and characher? Are the (wonderful) films of Curtis Hanson - LA Confidential and Wonder Boys - diminished by his failure to feature charcters of color in leading roles?

One must also be aware that another major theme of Tolkien, which is played out fairly well in the film versions, is relations and relationships between characters and racial groups that have hated one another for centuries - see dwarves v. elves. This is resolved in favor of a recognition that, while celebrating their diversity, these groups can look beyond their differences, particularly those which are merely skin deep.

When I think about all the stereotypical depictions that form a large amount of your entertainment options, it is surprising that people will pick on LOTR (believe me, it's not just Gillies), which seems to get it better than most. Why is this simple fantasy held to such a high standard? Perhaps it is becuase the detractors fear a 'genre' movie that becomes so wildly popular? Perhaps it is becuase it is so good that we want it to be perfect and feel slighted (maybe on second vieing) when we relaize it is not so.

Tolkien was just a man with an affinity for language. He went to war and did his best to raise his kids right and provide for his family while slogging away at the university. That he failed to make race relations the center of his little flight of fancy should not detract from what is good about the novels, what works and is entertaining and exciting.

As always, but particularly here, I invite your comments.


garcia said...

If you read the Lord of the Rings trilogy carefully, though, and then look at the map, the whole thing is a LOT like WWI, and even pre-WWI, Europe. Is it not odd that Hobbiton is in the NW? Is it not odd that the blonde elves are from the area that is placed geographically a lot like where Scandinavia and Germany would be? And isn't it ODD that the rogue forces from the South are dark-skinned, and their territory is not even shown on the Middle Earth map? For me, it's like a combination of the legendary fear of the Mongol Hordes (something that comes up again and again in Icelandic sagas, which were based on Nordic sagas, but hey, i'm no Comp. Lit. expert, o.k.?) and Tolkien's own experiences in WWI. One alliance vs. another alliance. The thing that I think is actually kinda cool is that the elves, when they "die", go out West to some greener pastures -- is that the US? Iceland? Certainly not Greenland, I can tell ya that much.

Well, that's my theory. Not so much racist as it is a thinly veiled reference to wartime Europe. and a fear of the "dark", mysterious continents of Asia and Africa.

GILLIES said...

Yo! I'm on the Blogerantz! Right on!

First off, it's an honor to have my thoughts be the subject of a post here.

Second, Hammer, I appreciate your very thoughtful response.

Third, let me say this - I haven't read the Tolkein books, so I have no idea whether his works are racist or not. I'm only talking about the movies (all of which I've seen), and specifically, the director's choice of exclusively casting actors of European descent (at least among the principals).

It had to have been a conscious choice, in my view. No way could the all white cast been an oversight on Jackson's part, especially given the diversity flap that Star Wars provoked.

My question is, why would Jackson make that choice of an all-white cast? Maybe to try and stay faithful to Tolkein's vision, descriptions of the characters, etc.? But that doesn't wash. Shakespeare probably never thought of Hamlet as anything but white, but that doesn't stop the RSC from casting Hamlets of different ethnic backgrounds.

Maybe Jackson wanted to avoid distractions (i.e. create a fantasy world unburdened by PC bullshit? Hmmmm. But then again, as you point out Hammer, some of the messages in the movie (which I assume come from the books) do pick up some PC themes - relationships between racial groups, environment, etc. So which is it? PC or not PC?

I'm sure Jackson has addressed this issue somewhere. Maybe I should google the topic or do an article search or something.

Anyway, Hammer, thanks to you and your audience for letting me vent these deep thoughts, bubbling in my soul since last night.



mistervito said...

To carry the line of reasoning that LOTR is a thinly veiled reference to early 20th century European conflicts, there are a few references to "persons of color". Since the trilogy was orginally composed in letters to his son during WWII, I am of the opinion that legendary references to the original war to defeat Sauron correspond to WWI, and that the trilogy refers to WWII.

In the literary ROTK, Aragorn is swept downriver to the "land of the corsairs". He recruits the Corsairs to cut off the river access from the Orc/Haradrim army on the Plains of Pellenor. In the movie this is simplified to a ghost army Aragorn and his companions recruit from some mysterious mountain passage (It seemed goofy to me, but saved the last movie from being 45 minutes longer).

The corsairs are of indeterminate racial origin, although clearly inspired by Mediterranean and/or Turkish privateers (~16-17th century). The Haradrim are also racial amalgamation of North African and Middle Eastern, even sub-continental Indian, warrior nomads. These two distinct cultural groups are given only limited representation in the movie, or edited out completely.

From Tolkien's perspective, Pelennor Fields roughly parallels the English victory in the Battle of Britain and driving the Axis out of North Africa (Early 1943). Gondor/Brittain is saved from immediate danger, and the tide of the war for the Allies/Fellowhip starts to shift to the offensive. To emphasize the scale of this battle, he brings in cultural players from beyond the European derived area of Middle Earth.

Did Jackson omit these details because of the time constraints of his already lengthy film? Was it simply too hard to recruit non-whites in New Zealand?

In terms of arguing racism, Jackson and Tolkien are both well-educated white middle-class Anglo-saxon protestants. Although I don't want to accuse them of being racists, their background hasn't given them muach exposure to "diversity".

garcia said...

oh thank you, Mr. Vito! man, i knew my limited (and maybe even made-up) knowledge of a subject would get somebody with your kinda chops to step up to the plate... thanks, buddy. i learned a lot.

maybe now's a good time to ask about Conan the Barbarian. why was he so barbaric?

mistervito said...

Ahh Jacob-Kyle, asking me about Ole Doc Howard's boy from Cross Plains would lead to me opening my own blog, and I just ain't got the time.

Perhaps one should ask not why Conan was so barbaric, but instead why aren't we more so?

Ask not for for whom the barbarian reaves, Garcia,
He reaves for theee...

Ster-geon said...

Aren't we focusing too much on RACE-ism in this interactive posting experience? I mean, there are numerous other ISMs that could come into play here. How about HEIGHT-ism (not to be confused with gigantism)?

I mean, the subservient roles the hobbits play, the way they are looked down upon by their less-vertically-challenged cousins? Or the cheap, trite jokes about dwarf-tossing in not one but TWO movies?

Beware if you're walking down the street and under 5'8", my readers. If Peter Jackson's driving the truck coming down the street, he won't think twice about mowing you down. And in his native New Zealand, they kill-a-midget-a-minute.