'Hobbit' film light skinned-only casting leaves black mark

News of the firing of a racially insensitive casting agent working on director Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the highly anticipated Lord of the Rings prequel set to be released in December 2011 and December 2012, spread like wildfire all the way from New Zealand, where filming is set to begin in February 2011. From Agence France-Presse to Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, the casting agent’s placement of ads in a regional New Zealand newspaper insisting that female hobbit extras “should have light skin tones” has raised eyebrows.

Further exasperating the matter, Naz Humphreys, a British woman of Pakistani descent, claims that, after standing in line for three hours to audition for a role as a Hobbit extra, the casting agent informed her that her skin was too dark. In addition, there is reportedly a video where the casting agent tells a group of extra hopefuls that “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.”

But what exactly does a hobbit look like? British publication The Independent reports that, in Tolkien’s “Middle Earth fantasy world, there were three races of hobbits, including harfoots, who were ‘browner of skin’.”

As Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again, white is the only way to go. All Tolkien films by Jackson have been shot in Jackson’s native New Zealand, which is, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, over 56 percent “European,” (as if European is white only), 8 percent Asian, over 7 percent Maori, over 4 percent Pacific Islander, almost 10 percent mixed and over 13 percent other. So, theoretically, all of Jackson’s films could be diverse. However, that’s never really been depicted on screen.

There is one almost always consistent exception. Somehow Sauron, who is the antagonist in two of _The Lord of Rings_films (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King), is actually played by stuntman-turned-actor Sala Baker, who is Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Interestingly, Sauron, who is, in case you missed it, evil, shifts from human form to become a floating eyeball.

When it comes to characters associated with evil, it’s amazing how actors of color tend to fit that bill. But let the role be one of a hero or heroine, or, in this case, a hobbit, and it becomes very difficult to place actors of color in these roles.

In this instance, Peter Jackson’s team has absolutely done the right thing by ridding itself of this casting agent. A spokesman for Jackson’s production company, Wingnut, assured Agence France-Presse that “no such instructions were given. And, while they were not given directly in this situation, unfortunately, these instructions are an unwritten rule in Hollywood. It’s why Warrington Hudlin could share his unfortunate story about trying to pitch the Charles Johnson’s book The Middle Passage with attendees at the 2001 Acapulco Film Festival. After the pitch, a studio executive said: “now, explain to me again why they want to get off the boat.”

It appears that getting off this boat is no easy proposition for Hollywood. In this instance, such a directive is so blatant that no one can deny it. As a result, it’s a no-brainer for Hollywood to laud the decision to dump this casting agent, in this situation. “You’d think a movie project whose roster of characters runs from dwarves to dragons would need to be as inclusive as possible in its casting,” starts the New York Times ArtsBeat blogger Dave Itzkoff in his post about the Hobbit incident.

You would also think that Hollywood would cast a lot more people of color in a franchise blockbuster like Spider-Man, for example, which is set in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world.

On television, multi-racial casting for shows like the long-running Grey’s Anatomy has been a huge hit. Yet, despite the success of multi-racial franchise blockbuster The Fast and the Furious, it has been rarely duplicated, a very curious development for a town known for copycatting. Yes, Zoe Saldana had a meaty role in Avatar but why do such roles have to be on Halley’s Comet’s schedule for actors of color in Hollywood?

Most puzzling is why news outlets widely reported this story without naming the casting agent. If the offense is so egregious, why not call the person out directly? More than likely this casting agent will work again. They might already have a job.

Unfortunately, in the end, the outcry against their actions is extremely isolated. For Hollywood, casting “white only” is commonplace. Just look at any given box office weekend and play “find the actor of color.” If this industry is interested in real change, don’t just call a spade a spade in New Zealand; be real about it and also call it out in their own backyard.