I’ve let this post ferment for a few days. Not because I was unsure of the topic itself, but to see if the way I wanted to write the post changed. It didn’t change, so I’ll sit down now and see if I can put my thoughts together in a way that makes sense…
Oh, and — if you are wondering — yes, this whole thing has in fact been a massive violation of my “write it right then” rule. And, yes, I am paying the price. I had some ideas on structure and content that I “put off” as part of the fermentation process, and now they are just plain gone…
This is why we have rules, people!
One of the expectations in writing and publishing nowadays is representation and diversity. For a sci-fi/fantasy guy like me, that is in fact half the fun. I once described sci-fi as a still, rather than a filter…as a way to throw together a bunch of separate thoughts and ideas and opinions in order to ferment and stew them into something unique.
Now, every writer is different in how they do that. My particular “brew” uses class, culture and language to portray the differences I chose to focus on in my background world-building, and in my characters themselves. While race is certainly an element in that mix, it is not a dominant factor. I made that choice intentionally, by the way. I made it not because race is not worth tackling, but because I figured I had bitten off quite enough to chew with my commentary on economic and socio-cultural injustices, thank you very much.
Okay, so all of the above was written to set the stage. To set the stage about expectations, about the portrayal of diversity, and about the mostly unseen/unpublished thoughts and intentions that writers put into their personal “brew” of world-building.
What got me to thinking about all of this? Lord of the Rings, of all things. First off, let’s be bluntly honest here — LotR is pretty much the whitest thing in existence. It is that way because it was written by a middle-age(ish), white British guy in the 1930s, based on ideas and background material he created in the ‘20s. Race and diversity were, to the very upper-middle-class Tolkien, things distant and unfamiliar. That is why his portrayal of peoples that are, essentially, Blacks and Indians is distant and unfamiliar.*
*If you are a Tolkien reader/fan, you will understand that I am talking here about the Haradrim and “Eastern peoples,” of course.
I mention that not as a criticism of Tolkien, by the way. I’m a historian — I take the periods and peoples of history for what they are, when they are. No, I mention it because there is a move afoot — after the massive success of Game of Thrones — to make a new streaming series based on Tolkien’s background material.**
**Nerd Alert!! Don’t read this note if you aren’t a full-bore geek! Everything I have read and researched says the series will focus on stories about Numenor in the Second Age.
Now, just the merest rumor of a well-done LotR show gets us fantasy geeks tingling in a big way. Unfortunately, it also brings out the ignorant and foolish. Given the current atmosphere in the US, it has brought to the sites talking about this (potential) series some of those troglodytic QAnon/ProudBoy racists we all wish would just go away. A dark subset of the commenters have focused on how “wokeness” will ruin Lord of the Rings. The worst catastrophe/desecration they can imagine is *gasp* the presence of black characters!
You can’t actually make this shit up: these “people” are literally screaming that LotR is for whites only, that there is no room in the stories for anyone else. Just typing a blog post about that idiocy is pissing me off, let alone the true anger that comes if I think through the consequences of their juxtaposition of white-supremacy and literature.
The ideal, to me, would be complete neutrality in casting, by the way. Do you know who would make an ideal Manwe for this new series? Morgan frickin’ Freeman. C’mon, the man played God and knocked it out of the park…could he ever do less as the chief of the Valar?
On that note, I want to push beyond just Lord of the Rings for the rest of this post. Why should we limit roles as “white” or “black” or anything else? One of my all-time favorite movies is The Lion in Winter. It is a favorite for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the powerful portrayal of an aging king, his troubled relationship with his fractious sons, and the bitter anger between the king and his estranged (imprisoned) wife. Peter O’Toole did one hell of a job as Henry, but do you know who I really want to see in that role? Idris Elba. That man can freaking act, and I think he would bring a range of emotion — the strength of a warrior-king to go with the fear and dread of a man entering old age — to Henry II that would make it 100% awesome.
Oh, wait…Elba isn’t white. We couldn’t have that. A black man playing the role of a white king? We could never have that!
Or could we?
If you have some spare time in your viewing plans, go watch Bridgerton on Netflix. Throw aside your preconceptions and expectations, and just watch. Yes, there is one brief “head nod” as to why half the cast is black in a show ostensibly set in London in the Regency period, but that nod isn’t actually needed. The acting is very good, the characters engaging, and the show a wonderful illustration of what can happen if we stop worrying about “white” or “black” roles, and just let creative talent shine.
By the way…would someone please find a vehicle to cast Denzel Washington as Richard III? Imagine that man’s intensity and ability to bring an audience close giving life and depth to that incredible role?