Pakistani Hobbits and Blue-Eyed Jesus

by J.D. Rhoades

It’s sort of an unwritten rule here at Murderati that we don’t talk about politics, because such discussion too often descends into controversy and acrimony. We try to shy away from such alienating material. So you’ll be happy to know that today’s post is about something a lot less polarizing.

I’m going to talk about race.

Sort of.

Recently, a controversy arose when a casting agent working on Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of THE HOBBIT placed an ad in the New Zealand papers looking for extras. Only those with “light skin tones” were invited to apply. The same agent , according to an article on Entertainment  Weekly’s website:

.was also reported to have told a prospective background extra, a woman of Pakistani heritage named Naz Humphreys, that she wasn’t suitable to play a Hobbit because of her skin color. According to The Waikato Times, video footage shows the casting agent telling people at an audition, “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.”

Jackson’s people, after downing an extra large dose of Mylanta to deal with the heartburn they knew was coming over this, insisted that they never specified any particular skin color for Tolkien’s hairy-footed creations, and the casting agent was promptly  sacked. But once that cat was out of the bag, there was no containing the controversy. Ridiculous political correctness, some claimed. Of course Tolkien intended his characters, whose roots were in Northern European mythology, to be Caucasian. Well, that’s just the problem with Tolkien, innit? Some replied, noting the author’s predilection for casting “swarthy” and “squinty-eyed” persons as henchmen of the Dark Lord. Still others, in full geek mode, noted that one particular branch of hobbit-kind, the Harfoots, were described as “darker skinned,” and mention is made in the prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS  of the hobbits’ “quick brown fingers,” so why couldn’t you have a black or Pakistani actor play a hobbit?

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to re-hash that whole argument.  You want to jump into that fray, you can find it at several places online. But it did get me thinking about the assumptions we make about some of the characters we read and write.

A few years ago, I was having one of those discussions about what actor we’d pick to play particular characters. when we got to Jack Keller, someone said “How about Denzel Washington?”

At first I laughed. Had to be a joke, right?

But then I thought, Hmmm, why not? He’s big enough. He’s a hell of an actor, one of my favorites in fact.  Anyone who’s seen MAN ON FIRE knows he can do brooding intensity and lots of ultraviolence.

 

 Keller’s described in the books as blonde, but that’s not so much a part of his character that it would be ruined by having an African American actor play the role.  

On the other hand, casting a black or asian guy as Tony Wolf, the protagonist of BREAKING COVER, might be a bit problematic. Wolf’s on the run after an undercover assignment in which he infiltrated an outlaw motorcycle gang went sideways in a very ugly way. Now, there are probably some black motorcycle gangs, but they tend to be  predominantly white. I think it  would just stretch credulity too far to  have, say, Jamie Foxx play the role.  

Likewise, I can’t see casting a white guy to play Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins or George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange. Those characters’  stories are so entwined with the history of racial issues in this country that casting, say, Harrison Ford in either role would just be bizarre, like casting a   blue eyed  Gentile to play Jesus.


Wait, they did that.  Anyway…

Jane Rizzoli’s Italian heritage is a big part of her character, so you need a dark haired white girl like the delectable Angie Harmon.

 

 

But could Gina Torres play Charlie Fox (assuming she could pull off the accent)?

 

She certainly kicked enough ass in FIREFLY.

You kind of need white actors to play Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genarro, because their characters are so rooted in the culture of white, working class Dorchester, that you couldn’t have, for example, Russell Wong play Patrick.

 

It would be like having a mostly Caucasian cast in the live action version of the anime classic THE LAST AIRBENDER.

Wait, they did that too.

 

 

So, your questions for discussion, if you dare:

1. Favorite “race bending” casting.

2. Least favorite.

3. Take your favorite character and play with their race. Make a white character Hispanic, a black one Asian. How does it work? Does it matter?

And Denzel, if you’re reading this: call me.

 

 

28 thoughts on “Pakistani Hobbits and Blue-Eyed Jesus

  1. Chris Hamilton

    I liked Tuvok or whatever his name was in one of the Star Trek series. Gasp! A black Vulcan.

    Enh. Who cares?

    They're rebooting the Rockford Files…why not have a black guy be Jimbo? (If you have to mess with perfection by giving the role to someone other than James Garner.) Same with with reboot of Magnum PI (ditto the Rockford sentiment with Tom Selleck).

    But Starbuck is, always was, and always should be a guy. If Dirk Benedict were dead he'd be spinning in his grave like a lathe.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Chris, at first I was startled by the idea of a dark-skinned Vulcan. But then it occurred to me: why should any science fictional planet have just one ethnicity? We don't.

    As for Starbuck: at first, I felt the same way. But Kara "Starbuck" Thrace became one of my favorite characters on the show. Talk about your flawed heroes! I'm also tickled by having Richard Hatch (the original Apollo) play the manipulative and sneaky Tom Zarek.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, God, the whole history of Hollywood is one casting travesty after another. Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan? Orson Welles as Othello? (And I'm the biggest Orson fan, but..)

    Some of it is just stomach-turning.

    The Hobbit thing… too much to wrap my brain around this early..

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    I don't really pay attention to race because I can't think of examples, only theoreticals. I read a lot of historical mysteries, usually set in England, and nobody is really making films of these eras but it would be jarring to have Elizabeth I be non-white. Casting-wise for CJ Sansom's books, Kenneth Brannagh's name has been stated for Shardlake; I love Brannagh but is wrong for the part, IMHO. For me, color isn't really the issue, it's whether the actor in general is right for the part.
    I saw an article in WSJ the other day where the production of Oklahoma! had a Hispanic Curly and a black Laurie. In theatre, it wouldn't matter especially if you're trying to make a point, but in a story trying to be historically accurate it wouldn't work.
    Being a "racist" in current days has gone beyond nonsensical to the point of not having meaning anymore. Can we hope that it will stay out of crime fiction?
    The only casting "crimes" I want to consider is whether to accept a blond Bond or not. (I did and truly loved Craig as Bond). There's a question, could Bond be accepted as black, or Arab, or Asian, etc.? In my opinion, no, but that doesn't mean a new character in the same kind of circumstances couldn't be created. Why do we have to keep re-hashing, recycling the old stuff?

  5. Shizuka

    I'm not sure about favorite, but I hated Micky Rooney playing a Japanese photographer in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY"S.
    They dressed him in a kimono robe (fake), applied Mikado-like makeup, and gave him a very exaggerated Japanese accent. It made me cringe so bad that I never rewatched that movie.
    Couldn't they at least have cast an Asian person?

  6. Chris Hamilton

    How about casting God as a black man…oh, wait, they did that already (and Morgan Freeman is the best movie depiction of God there is, hands down).

    Actually if you look at the type of planet Vulcan is, it seems that pasty-skinned guys like Leonard Nimoy would be in the minority. Most of the Vulcans should have darker skins.

  7. Debbie

    I had no problem with Captain Sisko however, Captain Janeway? When she appeared, I thought, this won't fly. Turns out she was I think, my favourite. Hardest role I believe is to be a strong woman who is not a bitch.

    What I'm truely curious about is people's default when invisioning character. My default for Canadian, American, Australian, and European characters is white unless it's stated otherwise. Latino for Mexico, South America and black for Africa, but characters in Asian countries breaks down further by country and the Caribbean …I don't really know because I've known people from the lightest to the darkest shades of brown living there. I wonder how a person whose ethnicity is not white perceives character, and whether their exposure to our overly white television and mainstream movies influences their perception.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Really interesting post, JD. When Mystery did some of the Hillerman novels, I was pleased to see that they used Native Americans, but would've preferred Navajos in both roles — but that's a visual bias. I can't imagine that using anyone but a N.A. would have worked for Chee and Leaphorn.

    But wouldn't it be interesting to take a classic mystery and put it in a different culture/time? I'm thinking of a contemporary Japanese Miss Marple. She'd have to deal with just as many social conventions, with the social striations etc of the culture. Or how about an Aboriginal Sherlock Holmes? Super astute, prickly, and brilliant?

    Man . . . the possibilities are endless.

  9. JT Ellison

    Cool post, Dusty. I think the biggest mashup that comes to mind for me was the recreation of one of John Sandford's Prey books with an all-black cast, Eric LaSalle as Lucas Davenport. They even replaced his Porsche with a bitchin' Camaro, which was a much bigger issue for me than the race. That move fed into stereotypes too much for the transition to work, in my opinion.

    That said, someone suggested Milla Jovovich to play Taylor, and my first thought was WHAT? She's brunette! It's funny how married to the mind's eye we become. I'm always curious to see the casting choices.

  10. Margaret Maron

    Interesting post, Dusty. Like Debbie above, I and probably most Caucasian readers used to think Caucasian was the default race. When I started mixing this up by referring to the "white" doctor, the "white" teacher, etc., I got a lot of static from those readers who had never had a problem with "black" doctor or "Hispanic" teacher, etc. Even the copy editor got testy about it.

  11. Kagey

    I read a post (grr, can't remember where) criticizing books where race wasn't referred to directly, but instead compared skin colors to various coffees. "Mocha" or a "light latte" or "undiluted java" (uh, wouldn't that be "black"?) or whatever. Evidently, it's become a cliche to avoid mentioning race by employing descriptions this way. Would it be better to say "she looked like she might have had an African grandmother?" My first thought was, what's a writer to do? Avoid description of it all together?

    I think cross-race casting can be a smart move; it's actually cross-cultural casting that requires some changes to the script or setting.

    This whole thing reminds me of a game my husband and I played the last time we watched an international track meet on TV. None of the athletes were wearing their countries' flags, so we were guessing nationalities: "Could be Kenyan. Or American. That guy could be German. Or American. That guy might be Korean, or American." My point is, unless a viewer has a specific reason to guess that someone is from a specific culture, it is really up for grabs.

  12. Allison Davis

    What is interesting about the post, and got me thinging, is when the person's race is tied up in the character — a white Hawk and black Spencer, unlikely. Benjamin January in the Hambly novels is a "Free Man of Color" and thus needs to be black. But other characters (how about Archie Goodwin?) could likely change race because the character is not racially indentified. Makes you think about how you are creating your character. In my second book, the main character spends time playing jazz in the black community of 1950's Fillmore in SF so her issue is that she's white. But some archetypical characters could probably be any race — Jack Reacher could be a Russell Wong type (great photo by the way humma humma). Is race part of your character's identity?

  13. Denzel Washington

    Sure. I'll do it. I love your books so much, I'll do it for free.

    Really.

    And this is really me. Not some smart ass trying to pull one over on you. I guarantee you it really is me, Denzel Washington. The actor guy.

  14. Allison Brennan

    It's too early to think this hard :/

    Debbie, I agree with you about Captain Janeway and the difficulties of casting strong, female leaders.

    I agree with your comment, JD, that it really depends on how much of the character comes from their heritage, because that goes into reader expectations as well as character depth.

    For most of my characters, ethnicity isn't really important, except for the Kincaid's who are half Irish and half Cuban which is important because it's entwined in their backstories, particularly the parents.

    JD Robb's Roarke needs to be Irish because it's such a part of his character. Eve could be almost anything.

    I haven't had enough coffee to think of anything else :/

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Great post, Dusty

    Not sure about Gina Torres, but only because part of Charlie's problems are that she comes from an upper middle class white upbringing, and I have a very specific age range in mind (late 20s) but I could be convinced otherwise …

    Very easily, probably.

    Weirdest bit of casting? Can anyboby explain what Pete Postlethwaite was trying to be as Kobayashi in THE USUAL SUSPECTS?

  16. toni mcgee causey

    I think the culture the character has been raised around is far more important to convey than merely the skin color… which then begs the question as to whether an actor can realistically portray that culture without breaking the suspension of disbelief.

    For example, Cajuns are, by definition, the people who were expelled from Acadia / Nova Scotia area in 1655 (and forward); at the time of the expulsion, they were typically French / Irish/Scottish / Mik'Maq (Natives), as the French who'd originally settled there married into the Mik'Maq and the Scots and Irish who came later married into that group. For the better part of two or three centuries, "Acadians" were thought of as white. Now, however, in south Louisiana, you'll find many blacks who live in the Acadian parishes, who are just as Cajun by culture as the non-blacks. They were raised here, intermarried here, and carry on the traditions. I'd rather see an actor get the culture right, get the mindset of the people correct, than worry over whether or not the skin was the expected color.

  17. Alafair Burke

    I'll get yelled at this, I'm sure, but I find casting people of color in roles originally conceived as white wholly unobjectionable. I do find myself bristling, though, when non-white characters are cast with white actors. There are so many white roles and white actors that if a white role is cast with an actor of color, I'm inclined to think it's because that actor brought something to the role that made it special and "worth" changing the race of the character. When the reverse happens, I suspect "white washing" for a broader audience.

    For a while, there was talk of Will Smith as Jack Reacher. I was… intrigued.

  18. Reine

    JD – Great topic! I'll vote for having Denzel do that role. 🙂 I was student minister of a Black church in Boston for 2 years. The first thing I noticed when I entered the building was a print of "The Last Supper" with a Black Jesus and apostles. A week or two later I found a print of the White version a corner of the office closet. God, I loved that church.

    Toni, I do love what you said about culture being more important than skin color. My multi-cultural/multi-racial ancestry Рthat included Mi'kmaq French/Aboriginal, Qu̩bec French, Scot and Irish, plus. Negotiating the cultural differences represented by the various branches of my family has always been a tremendous challenge, yet this has always been much more important than any differences in our skin colors. I look White, and Irish, yet I fit in way better with my French and Aboriginal relatives, particularly around Yarmouth, NS.
    ____________________
    Typed with Chopsticks

  19. JD Rhoades

    <i>Can anyboby explain what Pete Postlethwaite was trying to be as Kobayashi in THE USUAL SUSPECTS?</i>

    Mysterious and deceptive.

  20. JD Rhoades

    Denzel: cool. Hit me up by e-mail and I'll give you the number.

    Alafair: I love Will Smith, and he might be able to pull off Reacher. Too bad he didn't have a better script as Jim West. That movie was such a disappointment.

  21. Berit

    One can say a lot about Keanu Reeves' acting in the "Hellblazer" movie, but I thought it was pretty funny they turned a blond blue eyed Englishman into a black haired and brown eyed non-Caucasian American. 😀

    I heard rumors that LOTR features a couple of Asian extras as elves because they had the right look, apparently. Not sure if that is right, though.

    The name Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects is one of the early hints that the story is off and angled from the person who is telling it.

  22. Dudley Forster

    I have to agree with casting limitations being imposed on characters that have a specific heritage and for those characters where historical settings would bend credulity if their race was changed, otherwise it should make no difference. I remember when I found out that Lincoln Rhyme was going to be played by Denzel. I thought, wow. I had never envisioned Rhyme as African-American, but it was a wonderful choice. On the other hand, I think casting Sherlock Holmes as black or Asian would bend credulity if you left him in Victorian London. If , as Pari suggested, you put Holmes in a different place and/or time it would be very interesting. I also think Toni makes a great point about getting the culture right.

  23. Allison Brennan

    Denzel Washington can play any of my heroes 🙂

    But Alafair, I picture Timothy Olyphant as Jack Reacher. Sorry. We can have a cat fight over it later. Then the winner buys drinks 🙂

    (Of course, I'm such an Olyphant fan girl that he can play any of my heroes, too. I'll go back and forth between Timothy and Denzel.)

  24. Fran

    An odd matching of actors, racially, that really worked for me was the casting of Denzel and Keanu as brothers in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. The first time I saw it, I thought. . ."Huh?", but since then, their chemistry just works.

    I agree with JT about the Eriq LaSalle "Lucas Davenport". Just didn't work, in my opinion.

    Nicola Griffiths' "Aud Torvingen" is described as tall and blonde and of Norwegian heritage, but I find myself wondering if a Grace Jones sort might not just pull it off beautifully. Hmm, food for thought.

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