Posted on September 6, 2022

A Racist Backlash to ‘Rings of Power’ Puts Tolkien’s Legacy Into Focus

Richard Newby, Hollywood Reporter, September 2, 2022


{snip} For the past week, I’ve been bombarded with messages of hate, called the N-word, told to go back to Africa, and called on to be executed. The reason? The Lord of the Rings. It would almost be laughable if it wasn’t so profoundly sad. A wealth of stories, and a willingness to believe in wizards, Balrogs, giant spiders and magical swords. But allow people of color to exist in Middle-earth? Well, that is an affront to all that’s good and decent. At least that’s the primary argument for those ruinous trolls apparently review bombing and harassing fans of color over Amazon’s Rings of Powers series.


In middle school, I spent my bus rides listening to The Lord of the Rings on audio cassettes. And when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings came out, the films defined my adolescence as much as Star Wars and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. {snip} I say all of this not to cast myself as an expert on all things Middle-earth, but to paint the picture that this world of fantasy is an inherent part of me, as key to my makeup as DNA. So why shouldn’t I be able to feel the joy of seeing people who resemble me within Middle-earth? What makes me less deserving of this pop culture heritage?

At this point, I’ve heard every argument in the book against why castmembers Lenny Henry, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Nazanin Boniadi, Sara Zwangobani, Maxine Cunliffe and Sophia Nomvete shouldn’t play harfoots, elves, dwarves, or even humans in the Middle-earth where Amazon’s series is set. The most common refrain is that Tolkien didn’t include people of color in his stories. Not only is this untrue, as harfoots are described as having “browner” skin, but Tolkien didn’t often make a point to describe skin color, though he occasionally leaned on the open-ended “fairer than …”

Yet, there remains the idea that because Tolkien sought to create an English mythology that he intended Middle-earth to be comprised only of white people. This ignores the individuals of color who have populated England throughout its history, and that the first modern Britons had dark skin, based on DNA evidence taken from the Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 1903.

And while there’s no sense in speculating on the reactions of a dead man who could not possibly fathom the 21st century by the time of his death in 1973, Tolkien was notably anti-racist, even for the time period. {snip}

But here’s the thing: Even though Tolkien’s early 20th century progressiveness was not analogous to the progressive attitudes of today, it has no bearing on an adaptation or extension of his works. Things change. The movies and television released in 1954, when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, obviously look very different in terms of casting choices than what we see today. As such, Rings of Power looks different from Peter Jackson’s films from 20 years ago. Systems adapt, people formally denied opportunities to showcase their talent are afforded a spotlight in which they can and do earn it. Audiences of color, who have been asked to, and excelled at, empathizing with white people throughout the history of visual media, can wish to see themselves onscreen and see those wishes validated.

If anything, Rings of Power has an opportunity to be more inclusive in future seasons. While the cast features Black, Latino, MENA and Pacific Island actors, there is, as of now, a lack of Asian performers, which actor Ludi Lin noted last year. Chinese-British executive producer, and director of the majority of the first season, Wayne Yip, showcases behind-the-scenes diversity in that regard, but there is obviously room to grow in front of the cameras as well. Ultimately, let’s be real here. The vast majority of the cast is still white, and the characters that audiences will recognize from Jackson’s films are still played by white actors. The only reason folks have to complain about the casting choices is purely a result of bigotry, despite attempts to cover their own asses with claims of “bad acting” and “not enough experience.”

What the discourse over Rings of Power has made clear is we’re living with the rationalization of racism. {snip}