Fantastical Racism

How racially diverse casting fueled a culture war

With the recent release of the Lord of the Rings prequel ‘Rings of Power’, some fans feel angered by the diverse casting of characters – claiming it’s inaccurate to Tolkien’s original and political “wokeness” has ruined the plot. The cast members of ‘Rings of Power’ released an official statement combating the messages of hate and criticism, emphasizing the importance of diverse representation in the adaptation. They pointed out that an all-white cast would go directly against the intentions of Tolkien, that middle earth is “A world in which free peoples from, different races and cultures join together, in fellowship, to defeat the forces of evil. ‘Rings of Power’ reflects that.”

Pushback to casting and even the idea of people of color in fantasy is nothing new. Within the past several months there have been other controversies surrounding fantasy genre adaptations featuring Black leads, such as the new Percy Jackson series and Little Mermaid live action movie. This particular reaction highlights the weaponization of the media to mobilize political polarization. In an interview with CNN, right-wing website editor Brandon Morse said “if you focus on introducing modern political sentiments, such as the leftist obsession with identity issues that only go skin deep, then you’re no longer focusing on building a good story.” In a similar vein, Daily Wire host Matt Walsh stoked a twitter debate over the scientific merit of a Black mermaid, writing, “I mean, if anything, not only should the Little Mermaid be pale, she should, actually, be translucent. If you look at deep sea creatures, they’re, like, translucent.” His nonsensical take blew up for its absurdity, which allowed Walsh to victimize himself as being attacked by “thousands of leftists”. These instances show how the incitement of the right wing by proclaiming diversification of leftist agenda has created a red carpet for hatred and racism.  

Backlash to diverse casting is expected in every Hollywood production, but the realms of dragons and mysticism have a particular irresistible flavor that attracts racist commenters. The genre of fantasy is heavily associated with the writings of European authors with settings and influence from medieval Europe, and the prejudices and tropes along with it. Dr. Sherri Williams, a diversity researcher writes, “Fantasy is a genre where writers, who are mostly white, indulge their imagination and create a world that is mystical, magical, ethereal and fantastic but unfortunately that’s not how many of these creators see people of color in real life, so they can’t imagine people like that in a fantasy world… So they end up not being there at all”.” 

The original Lord of the Rings trilogy only featured three people of color; all of whom played orcs or ‘witch kings’ – playing into harmful stereotypes. Sophia Nomvete, who plays Disa in ‘Rings’ commented on the issue, “Now, generations will have what I didn’t have, which is to be able to enjoy the story, and also see themselves staring back at them.” What makes stories like Tolkien’s so captivating is the usage of other-worldly settings and conditions to depict the human experience. That is why for many, diverse representation is a step towards making the genre a more inclusive one.

Fantasy is not just a world where magic and mythical creatures exist, it’s also a world that up until recently has reflected the fantasies of the absence of people of color. The argument that tradition, plot, science, or overall integrity of a story is dependent on maintaining whiteness only underlines these desires.