One of the draws to fantasy for me has always been the rich worlds and strange cultures inherent in the genre. Give me the wide world of Middle Earth and I’m a happy girl: Elves and hobbits and humans, oh my. And I was happy in that fantasy world, until a friend of mine asked, “Where are the brown elves?” It’s funny how just one question will make you see things through a different lens: Can it be that the only characters in The Lord of the Rings who are black are the orcs? Sadly, yes.
Quick, without hitting Google, name as many American fantasy movies with a non-Caucasian lead as you can. Go ahead, use the broad definition of fantasy that counts any film that breaks the laws of the natural world.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, right? Except that doesn’t count since the movie comes from China. Come on, we’re talking about Hollywood, the movie capital of the world! I have to admit, aside from Jackie Chan movies and 2002′s The Scorpion King, I’m hard-pressed to name a single American fantasy movie with a lead of color. You’ve got to wonder, when Will Smith has proven that science fiction can be a blockbuster with a black star, why can’t fantasy follow suit?
I recognize there are a few excuses: With The Lord of the Rings, for example, people will point out that it’s based on European mythology, which is naturally going to lead to European casting. And anyway, they’ll say, Tolkien specified that orcs were black in the book. There’s a problem with this, from my point of view: Tolkien created more than one race of orcs. One race he describes as “sallow-skinned” and unable to tolerate daylight. The black orcs, or Uruk-hai, were specially bred to do just that, and so their skin tone makes a certain kind of evolutionary sense. I didn’t see that distinction in the movie — it just looked like good guys are white; bad guys are black.
You see this pattern in fantasy again and again. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), for example, faces endless streams of “natives” whose skin tone makes them easy to distinguish from the European good guys. Sure there are exceptions. Sallah, for instance, is Indy’s faithful native sidekick… of course I should mention that he’s played by the white actor John Rhys-Davies (who, as long as we’re counting, plays Gimli in The Lord of the Rings).
There’s a term for such sidekicks: “Noble savage” or “magic negro.” These are the non-European characters who appear, seemingly from nowhere, to dispense advice to the hero of the story in order to help him or her on the quest. An example of this is would be The Legend of Bagger Vance. The golf pro, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), is stuck in his game until legendary caddy Bagger Vance (Will Smith) appears out of the mists of time to teach Rannulph how to play. His job done, he disappears again. Morgan Freeman, as God in Bruce Almighty, doles out advice to Jim Carrey in much the same way. And John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile exists more as a plot device than a character. The thing that these men have in common is that none of them are actually allowed to do the quest on their own.
Of course there are also the fantasy flicks where the main character’s skin tone is the source of a joke: Take a look at Black Knight starring Martin Lawrence, in which a black man working in an amusement park goes back in time to 1328. Sure, it might be a modern take on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but it’s a little questionable in terms of appropriateness. Or how about Down to Earth (2001), which remakes Heaven Can Wait (1978) but derives its humor from seeing a rich white man acting black. Really?
And… that’s it. Those are the ones I could find. It’s not like the situation is improving, either. M. Night Shymalan recently announced casting for his live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Guess what happened to the story’s ethnically diverse crop of characters? All white. You know, my friend asked where the brown elves were, but what I want to know is: Where are the brown heroes? I want to see them. I love fantasy because of the magic and wonder, but also because it reflects the human condition. The real world is diverse and wonderful. The world of fantasy should be even more so.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is also the art director at Shimmer Magazine and a professional puppeteer. Her column appears every Friday.