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The Real Problem with Black Elves (clickbait title)

🧝🏿 ... For Mortal Men Doomed to Die...

Author's note: One thing I don't engage with at all in this essay is the notion of representation, not because it isn't important, but more because a lot of people more qualified than I am have already weighed in. Instead, I'm sticking to things that I am more familiar with: storytelling tools and white self-identity.

So there's been no shortage of hubbub lately around color-blind casting in epic fantasy prestige television. People are getting awfully upset that there are black Targaryans, or black elves and dwarves in The Rings of Power. They claim that Tolkien intended The Silmarillion, the lore of which is the basis for The Rings of Power, as an ancient history of England, and that to put non-white people in it does not accurately reflect a time before widespread travel would allow for intercontinental race-mixing. And why would the Noldor or the Eldar or the proto-Hobbits be non-white? And others have pointed out that, actually, the pre-Roman denizens of what we now call England were dark skinned, or that Tolkien himself described the Harfoots as being browner of skin. And this is all well and good and interesting, but none of it actually matters. None of it.

And when I say "none of it actually matters" I'm cutting in both directions. On the one hand, let us dispel the myth that the complainers actually give a balrog's ass about fidelity to the source material. These are not serious claims and they should not be treated seriously. They are the pants-wetting tantrums of spoiled, racist children. And on the other hand, color-blind casting is appropriate regardless of the source material. If Tolkien himself had described Radagast the Brown as being a man who was paler than milk but the director wanted to cast Lupita Nyong'o, then that's the appropriate thing to do. Why?

Because that's just how storytelling works.

Listen: All storytelling is a compromise between the world of the story (diegesis) and the world of the audience (non-diegesis). There is a constant tension between authenticity and accessibility. I've blogged about this before, and one thing that I pointed out is that non-diegesis always wins out. We always make concessions to the audience where necessary and this should always supersede the internal logic of the story. Plot holes be damned. This is why all the characters in period pieces speak English and have straight teeth. Is it accurate? No, but it's a concession we make to the audience.

It's also why so many ancient non-white characters have been played by white actors--from Cleopatra to Jesus. One of the long-running unspoken rules is that the characters are a reflection of the audience's perception of itself, not a reflection of the actual world they take place in--for good or for ill... mostly ill if we're being completely honest. Historically tentpole cinema has been marketed to mostly white audiences and the casting reflects this. Authenticity gets tossed right out the window, sometimes to near comical effect. The 2008 heist movie 21 depicts the MIT 6--a group of Asian students--as predominately white. Or take literally any movie set in the Old West. The Old West was never majority-white, but the entire John Wayne oeuvre would make you think otherwise.

Now, in recent years there has been some interesting pushback on this rule. Modern audiences now expect Asian characters to be played by Asians, and so forth. This is a shift, but it still only goes as far as matching the race of the actor to the race of the character to within a few degrees of freedom when the race of the character is dictated by the story. Nobody cares that David Harbour plays a Russian in Black Widow despite being of Great British heritage. But that's nothing. Nobody cares either that Idris Elba was cast as Heimdal in the Thor movies. Does it make sense for an ancient Norseman to be black and British? Of course not, but these are fantasy movies about magic space vikings, so who cares? But again, this is a recent change.

And it's all because, historically, white people have perceived the world as being basically white. Oh, sure, there are some non-whites around, but they're mostly at the periphery. And the black people that do get to come to prominence have to be a very white-friendly version of black. There's a reason that even in the year of our lord 2022, black actors not named Will Smith or Dwayne Johnson largely only find leading roles in "black" films.

But here's the rub. Modern audiences have a different expectation. Their perception has changed. Young people perceive their world as being diverse, and they therefore expect that to be reflected in the casting of films that are aimed at them. Hence, we get black dwarves and elves, and a black Little Mermaid, apparently. Is this historically accurate or aligned with the source material? It doesn't matter so don't even bother asking. What matters is meeting audience expectation, especially that of young people because--news flash--all tentpole films are aimed at young people!

So again, let us dispel the myth that anyone bitching about the casting of The Rings of Power has actually read The Silmarillion. They haven't, but it doesn't matter anyway. White people aren't upset actually upset about that. They're upset that the world has awakened to the idea that it doesn't look purely white. And this feeds an ongoing anxiety--one being stoked by ultra-right media giants--that the white race are being usurped as the true heirs of Western Civilization by a lot of mongrels savages. And it's just so goddamned exhausting.

The truth is that the world was never as white as they wanted to believe it was. And if society has finally opened its eyes to that fact and starting casting film and television in that light, then it's an unqualified good, plot holes be damned.