J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is regularly criticized for its lack of characters of color. From books to movies, few (if any) nonwhite characters appear in the series — including its prequel story, The Hobbit. That all changes with the release of Shadow Of War, a video game series based on LotR that will bring us something rarely seen in fantastical fiction: a black person.
Cool! Except here’s why Lord of the Rings’ new brown person gets no brownie points from me.
Really? Now you’re adding a character of color to the Lord of the Rings story?
Before you say “but it wouldn’t make sense for black people to be in Mordor,” Lord of the Rings is a fictional story: Anything can be anything.
The latest trailer for Middle Earth: Shadow of War gives us an idea of what to expect from the PS4, Xbox One and PC game. Pay special attention to what happens at 0:16 and 1:35.
The dark-skinned human toward the end of the Shadow of War trailer is Baranor, and he isn’t just some background non-playable character. Baranor will see his own downloadable story later on, according to Waypoint.
Any step toward proper inclusion is worth noting, but I remain apprehensive to celebrate this kind of addition if only because, at least for many Lord of the Rings fans, the story is essentially already finished.
The movies came out 16 years ago and the books released over 60 years ago. A downloadable side story in a game that isn’t even one of the main LotR series (which we all loved, apparently) may go largely unnoticed by many who indulge in the series. He’s not even the main character of this trailer, and he damn sure isn’t a main character in the Rings series. Next time the squad is marathon-watching all the three movies (extended cuts only), will anyone mention — or even think of — Baranor? Did his two seconds in the game’s trailer even give us anything cool we can say about him? You already know the answer to both these questions.
To Monolith’s credit, we have to start somewhere, and to Lord of the Rings’ credit, the story features a wide variety of races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc.). Yet that didn’t stop the movie studios from arranging a cast that looked like this:
The problem occurs in more fantasy series than just Lord of the Rings. Shows like Game of Thrones do a better job but suffer from similar problems, as Star Wars’ John Boyega noted in GQ recently. Even in the space fantasy (prior to Disney’s recent revival), their galaxy far, far away was one made up of white people, Samuel L. Jackson and Lando.
In many stories — Lord of the Rings included — the movies provide the most prominent visuals that represent the Lord of the Rings universe. In a world where Frodo, Bilbo Baggins and even Smeagol are on the front lines, Tall-Dark-and-Baranor is pushed off to the side in a story that most people won’t even see.
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Check out the latest from Mic, like this what we learned when we chatted with seven booth models at E3 2017 about expo culture. Or this deep dive into the cultural origins of Gamergate. Also, be sure to read this essay about what it’s like to cosplay while black, a roundup of family-friendly games to play with your kids and our interview with Adi Shankar, producer of the animated Castlevania Netflix series.