The Business of Race in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Sue J Kim. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009. 

“The epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns, and audiences are much more interested in Middle Earth than in the world they inhabit.” ~ Robert Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“The Lord of the Rings is racist.” ~ John Yatt, The Guardian

Movies of fantasy can be more real than “realistic” movies. For example, it would be a mistake to think of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) film trilogy as merely an escapist fantasy. On the contrary, the production, content, and distribution of the films exemplify the problems with how many people, particularly in the United States and other “first world” developed nations, think about race today. This skewed but palatable vision of race relations characterizes virtually all Hollywood productions because even slight deviations from such discourses of racial harmony can hurt box office sales. In this chapter, I will discuss how the LOTR films exemplify problems with how we understand race and how the contemporary film industry relies on such distortions.

Public discourse about race tends to cast it in terms of identity, personal attitudes, and cultural representations rather than economic and political structures. This way of thinking is shared both by people who think racism exists and by those who do not. On the one hand, many of us wish so much that racism was a thing of the past in our enlightened multicultural societies that we believe our own wish, and few places reflect this desire more consistently and obdurately than Hollywood. On the other hand, when issues of race do arise, it is usually in terms of cultural representation or individual attitudes. Neither of these approaches, however, take into account the economic and political histories that constitute the complex realities of race.

Liberal multiculturalism, the concept most powerfully informing issues of cultural diversity, gives us a model of discrete racial and cultural groups coexisting harmoniously. Unlike critical multiculturalism, liberal multiculturalism does not account for the difference in power between groups, the differences within groups, and the fluid nature of any human social group. According to the powerful discourse of liberal multiculturalism, which has been accepted by liberals as well as conservatives all over the world, the celebration—or at least “tolerance”—of cultural differences (including dress and appearance, food, speech and other modes of interacting, etc.) has made racism a thing of the past. In other words, the two notions go hand-in-hand: the idea that race is primarily a cultural, discursive, or personal issue and the idea that racism is a thing of the past.

But the notion that race is some kind of essential, fixed thing, or that racism is simply the personal failing of a few anachronistic troglodytes, limits our understanding of the complex ways that racialization actually works. In their seminal Racial Formations in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Winant discuss how race is produced historically, through contending social forces that pervade all aspects of our lives. Like gender and sexuality, the subtle dynamics of racial power suffuse every aspect of our existence, so cultural analyses of race continue to be crucial. But race is also shaped by economic and political forces; Omi and Winant define racism as a process that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.” So, for example, the exploitation and exacerbation of vast differences in wealth within nations and internationally often works in conjunction with race. Our problem is that because we think of race in terms of liberal multiculturalism and its focus on culture and identity rather than political and economic structures, we can fantasize that making images of happy interracial harmony actually produces positive race relations.

The dream of liberal multiculturalism characterizes the contemporary film industry (primarily Hollywood, although these discourses also arise in independent films), which sells us this notion of race in places we may least expect it. To fulfill audience’s desires to have racial issues resolved, mainstream films gesture toward challenging issues but ultimately gloss over or even suppress the real issues. This suppression is at the heart of the appeal of such films as LOTR, which broke numerous box office records.2 For an industry driven primarily by profit motive, the films offer a wish-fulfillment through their surface of interracial harmony, even as they draw on racist discourses. By examining the semiotics of the films in conjunction with their economic-political contexts, we can better understand why and how limiting ourselves only to the arena of culture or discourse ultimately limits our ability to have meaningful discussions about race. Moreover, we can see how Hollywood uses such watered-down notions of multiculturalism in the content and marketing of its films, while in production and distribution it exploits the same economic and power structures that exacerbate real issues of racial disparity.

“Men of the West”: Color Coding In LOTR

Given that contemporary discourses of race fixate on cultural representation, it is strange that there has been so little discussion about the racial politics of the LOTR films. In terms of racial coding, it is the only contemporary fantasy/sci-fi blockbuster film series as immediately cringe-inducing as the first new Star Wars film, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The Matrix, as laughably atrocious as Reloaded and Resurrection may have been, at least attempted to be ethnically sensitive and diverse. Each ship’s crew pointedly includes nonwhite members, and Zion is a multiracial city led by a council, one of whom is played by Cornel West, a prominent African American philosopher. The film’s principal heroes include Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) and Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), both African American actors. Harry Potter has a Chinese love interest, and the British public school context of Hogwarts steers clear of anything like the debacle of Jar-Jar or Princess Amidala’s geisha getup. In the LOTR trilogy, however, goodness consistently correlates to whiteness, racially and as color scheme. The good guys are associated with Europe, particularly England and the Scandinavian countries, the West, and the North. Evil is invariably black, savage, Southern (or “Southron”), and Eastern. All racially white actors, whether from New Zealand (where the film was shot), Australia, the United States, Ireland, or England, are assimilable as Middle Earth heroes (although they must adopt British accents), and they display a heterogeneous mix of European (mostly British and Scandinavian) cultural references.

The films generally draw their racial and color-coding from the novels, but in the visual medium many aspects appear more striking. The “Men of the West” are led by “The White Wizard,” Gandalf, with his white horse, Shadowfax, particularly in defending the racially white people of Rohan and the “White City” of Minas Tirith. Aragorn is a “Ranger from the North” who can speak to horses in not only Elvish but also Old English, and Rohan is of Scandinavian design. Eowyn’s lament for Theoden’s son, Theodred, is drawn from Old English, and cowriter Philippa Boyens notes that for the Rohirrim they drew on “bits and pieces of Beowulf.” The costume designers discuss their intent to make Galadriel the “most white,” “most elegant,” and “most beautiful” of all the characters. Hobbit culture and language is drawn from the United Kingdom, and Hobbiton at Mata Mata was designed to convey “homely and familiar” comfort, such as, “Englishness.”

Conversely, “black” signifies evil, particularly the faceless Black Riders with black hoods and horses. Although Saruman the White, played by Christopher Lee, is one of the chief villains, he proves to be merely “passing”; his castle of black obsidian and black chamber and palantir tip off viewers to his black heart. At the council meeting at Rivendell, Gandalf speaks “the black speech of Mordor”; director Peter Jackson notes that the scene “shows the power of black speech within the elven world of Rivendell … the evil force saying those words can conjure up.” The various nonhuman minions of Sauron and Saruman exhibit an array of racialized characteristics, although these traits are generally mixed and inconsistent. Goblins are blunt-nosed, short, stooping, and slant-eyed. The orcs, who are “elves gone bad,” as explained by Treebeard in the extended version, have brown and red faces. The Urukhai are tall, black, and muscular with long, coarse hair that resembles dreadlocks. These Uruks, a racial mongrel of goblins and orcs, are shown being “harvested” from mud; thus they are literally “mud people.”

Although these monster-villains are generally nameless, animalistic monsters, the one exception is Lurtz, the Uruk captain who is shown emerging from the mud. The filmmakers explain that they invented Lurtz to personify the Uruk-hai and to provide a mobile villain, since both Sauron and Saruman are stationary. Lurtz, although entirely covered with prosthetics and make-up, is played by Lawrence Makoare, a Maori of the Ngati Whatua tribe (Makoare), who also plays the Witch King, the Nazgûl captain, in Return of the King. Makoare also played “Macenus/Barbarian Leader” in a 1995 episode of Xena: Warrior Princess and “Mr. Kil” in 2002’s Die Another Day. Asked why indigenous people always play villains, he replies, “I always play the bad guys … it’s a type cast thing. … I am not upset about it … whether you play the bad guys or good guys, the pay is the same. 5 bucks. heh.” In New Zealand, he continues, “everyone knows me as the bad guy … I think I’m the first choice.” Makoare also voiced Lurtz, and when Makoare had to leave the production for other engagements, Sala Baker, a New Zealand actor of Samoan descent and a professional stunt-person, took over the Lurtz role. Baker also plays Sauron in the Fellowship prologue and an Uruk at Amon Hen in the Two Towers.

Disturbingly, with their white face paint (“the White Hand of Saruman”) and coarse black hair, the Uruks strongly resemble Maori warriors. In the New Zealand film Utu, the Maori warrior Te Wheke, played by Anzac Wallace (a former convict, labor organizer, and arbitrator of Maori descent), seeks revenge (“utu”) for the betrayals by the British. Te Wheke tattoos his face to signify his declaration of war against the Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Te Wheke’s trenchant, militant rage is contrasted to his brother Wiremu’s decision to pursue biculturalism. Wiremu is played by Wi Kuki Kaa, who although also ethnically Maori, appears more Westernized and thereby symbolizes a rational, liberal multicultural society. “By the end of the film,” Blythe notes, “Te Wheke … has been executed for his transgressions against Maori and Pakeha.” In other words, Te Wheke represents the irrational hatred on the part of the savage other. Disturbingly, Makoare as Lurtz shares characteristics of Te Wheke, including brown skin, thick, wiry, black, almost dreadlocked hair, facial tattoos, a hulking physique, and an implacable, primordial desire to destroy (white) people.

The Two Towers film, with its extended battle sequences, introduces us to the “Southrons” and “Easterlings.” While the novels inform us that Sauron has struck deals with and/or enslaved these people, in the films they simply appear amassing in Mordor. The Easterlings have kohl-rimmed, almond-shaped eyes and dark skin and wear turbans. On the actors’ commentary track, Sean Astin enthuses about the Easterlings’ “South Asian” look. Return of the Kings siege of Minas Tirith features the Easterlings as well as the Southrons, who are large, muscular, face-painted, and black, both groups riding atop enormous “oliphaunts” (large elephants). Again, whereas the novels at least hint at the humanity of the Southrons and Easterlings—we get a little insight into their reactions to the “Captains of the West,” and Aragorn has to deal with them as peoples after the war—in the films, they embody abstract evil that disappears when defeated. In a scene cut from the theatrical release (and thought by Sam in the novel), Faramir wonders aloud about the humanity of a fallen Easterling. Jackson argues that this addresses Tolkien’s critics: “People say that he’s racist, people say that he’s pro-war,” but such a scene indicates that Tolkien despised war and questions “why the enemy are supposed to be different from him.” But this episode does more to humanize Faramir than the anonymous, dead Easterling, and it is only a brief moment—cut from the theatrical version—in three epic films laden with racialized imagery. Jackson’s comment also reflects the identity-/experienced-based conception of politics and ideology.

Furthermore, Jackson notes that the inspiration for the siege of Helm’s Deep came from the 1964 Michael Caine film Zulu, based on an 1879 event in which 150 British soldiers held a garrison at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, against 4,000 Zulu warriors. For this, British soldiers received the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded to a regiment for one action, and Rorke’s Drift has become a tourist attraction to which people still make “pilgrimages.” Jackson recalls, ”Zulu was always in the back of my mind when I was thinking about Helm’s Deep,” and he discusses drawing on the way Zulu builds tension for the first hour and then “all hell breaks loose.”

In Two Towers, tens of thousands of orcs and Uruks amass at Orthanc and then attack the small Rohan band at Helm’s Deep; like beetles or cockroaches they swarm over the landscape, scale the walls, and spill over (and destroy) the battlements. The correlation of orcs, Uruks, and goblins with insects (and Zulus) is not wholly inadvertent; in discussing the design of the prosthetics for the villains, famed Tolkien artist John Howe notes that they should be “insect-like,” like “cockroaches,” with “black, dark, nasty suits of armor.” Jackson also refers to other action-adventure films based on fantasies of defeating savage others. In Moria, the cave troll scene in Gloin’s tomb is a homage to Harryhausen, director of such early fantasy films as Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, and when the Balrog emerges, Jackson notes that one of his references was Indiana Jones.

Overall, the racial coding of the films far exceeds the film’s intended message of cross-cultural cooperation, most pointedly conveyed in Legolas and Gimli’s relationship. The filmmakers also invent other episodes to stress this point, such as when a battalion of elves, despite long-standing estrangement, comes to aid the humans at Helm’s Deep. Likewise, although Christine Brooke-Rose argues that Legolas’ and Gimli’s only function in the novels is “to illustrate dwarf and elf characteristics,” their friendship is supposed to demonstrate the possibilities for cooperation even between individuals of different cultures and species with long historical animosities, thus moving beyond a deterministic view of those characters and their races. The films also problematize race-consciousness by showing, in Fellowship, Aragorn struggling with his lineage and membership in the human race, preferring the ways (and women) of the elves. In fact, Aragorn himself is a product of a mixture of cultures; as a Dunédain, he lives longer than normal humans, he was raised by the elves, and his children, presumably, will be half elvish. But again, these are just a few notes in an overall symphony of racial coding.

The oddest thing about the trilogy is that they invoke contemporary racial discourses without really referring to them, but at the same time the films cannot really escape those racial discourses. The Uruks are big, black, savage, and dreadlocked, their faces tattooed with war paint. The heroes are of “the West” and “the White,” while Mordor is “the Black Land.” These fantastic representations exceed, while never wholly shedding, delineations of current and historical racial discourses. For example, it is curious and bizarre that while most of the Uruks, orcs, and goblins are played by white actors, and while all the actors playing monsters are completely covered by prosthetics and make-up, a Maori actor was cast in the role of Lurtz and the Witch-King and an ethnically Samoan actor in the role of Sauron. Two reasons for this infelicitous casting come to mind. First, as Makoare has noted, he is typecast as “the bad guy,” whether on New Zealand television or Xena: Warrior Princess. Furthermore, Makoare and Baker apparently seem “natural” in these roles because the Uruks, Sauron, and the Witch-King are big, black, savage, and evil. These casting and typecasting issues have to do with the issues of the racialized political-economic situation I will discuss later in this chapter; my point here is that the film simply overflows with racial issues that work on two levels. On the surface, the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism—of many species living together in happy harmony—reassures us; at the same time, the specter of whites besieged by dark hordes speaks to deeper racial anxieties. Both of these levels are key to the films’ appeal.

But despite the glaring obviousness of these racial delineations, discussions about race in LOTR and contemporary films in general tend to be confused or avoided altogether. For example, film critics who can intelligently discuss the film’s aesthetics and possible commentaries on war or other topics, find themselves stymied when trying to discuss race (and gender). For example, in the online magazine Slate’s “Year in Movies” discussion by four prominent film critics, the conversation becomes mired down in identities and indeterminacy. The conversation ignites when L.A. Times critic Manohla Dargis, after responding angrily to Village Voice critic J. Hoberman’s suggestion that LOTR was disliked by women because it is “more of a guy thing,” asks, “Do you think that a lot of (American) critics have become reluctant to deal with movies politically for fear of being labeled ‘politically correct’?” New York Times film critic A. O. Scott agrees that while “there is a political dimension to a great many movies,” “trying to establish it too early or evaluate it too dogmatically makes for dull and predictable criticism.” In most cases, he argues, “the political implications of movies are either muddled … or opaque, and their connection to the world of actual politics becomes clear only in retrospect.” Politics are indeterminable because each person’s political beliefs are determined not only by “age, taste, gender, sexuality, or anything else,” they are also often marked by “complexity, incoherence, and unpredictability,” as well as “boredom” and “muddle-headedness.” Dargis agrees that her own politics are “a big confusing jumble” and that she does not “look at movies through a specific political lens,” so “I never want to write a review with some sort of (political) checklist in hand.” Wesley Morris, film critic for the Boston Globe, concurs that “a lot of critics do fear dealing with movies’ politics,” either out of the “muddle” of one’s own politics or “some kind of editorial pressure.” And Scott agrees, “politics can be quite slippery and ambiguous—and, as often as not, reflections of the political inclinations and rhetorical skills of the people watching them.” So the answer to the question that Scott poses—”Does Return of the King, with its martial sweep and its clearly demarcated lines of good and evil—racial lines, by the way, albeit drawn between imaginary races—stand as a mirror for our own times?”—remains, ultimately, unanswerable. Similarly, John Yatt in The Guardian identifies both the films and novels as “racist,” then dismisses the issue with a guilty shrug. Otherwise, there is little or no conversation about race in the films.

But we can understand the politics of a film like LOTR in more complex and concrete ways, particularly in the context of the global industry mainstream films have become. The “complexity,” “muddle-headedness,” and “incomprehensibility” of the debate about representation and race may have more to do with its premises than simply each person’s innate confusion. Dargis starts down a productive path at one point, although she shies away from making any definitive statement:

Yes, the critic certainly, in part, defines a movie’s politics. But there is a political dimension to even the most ostensibly nonpolitical film, just as there is a political dimension to clothes (Made in China … by slave labor!) and food (McDonalds or Slow Food-approved). There is a political dimension to how movie money is raised, what screenwriter and director are chosen, how many and what kind of theaters a film opens in, and it is naive to believe otherwise. Everyone decides what is important to them—how much compromise he or she can stand, and what he or she does with their contradictions.

While the previous dialogues about fantasy, films, and politics point to the limitations of modern discourses of race, here Dargis suggests possibilities for moving beyond a “checklist” or “litmus test” model of political analyses. What are the structures and processes of power, particularly economically and politically, that shape the experiences and perceptions of different groups of people? As David Golumbia points out in his critique of Star Trek’s liberal humanist take on race, when race hatred is seen as stemming from primordial, essential “hatred,” there is no consideration of the possible “justifications” of anger, no reflection on the dynamics of one’s own structures, organizations, and processes (e.g., the Federation), nothing but a blissful utopia of a future devoid of racial conflict:

Insofar as that rational-logical structure, the Federation, represents the white power structure in place in the U.S. (and the neutralizing and blinding ideology upon which it rests), the show offers us the spectacle of that power structure and of what we might call hegemonic whiteness watching the Watts riots in horror, while relying on its utopian displacements to make those conflicts strange, alien, not part of “us” and significantly not our fault.

We can see a similar dynamic operating with LOTR. The films function through willful repression. The experience is that our “selves” are okay because the kind of racial strife between the elves and the dwarves is, for us, a relic of the past. We are okay not only because it is “just a movie,” but also because its production, marketing, and distribution is transnational and multicultural; white American actor Viggo Mortensen and New Zealander (ethnically Samoan) actor Sala Baker greet one another at The Two Towers premiere with an affectionate head-butt. The film was made in New Zealand and intended for a primarily American audience; although global distribution is part and parcel of the industry now, on the DVD commentaries, several times Jackson and the writers address American audiences (e.g., translating Celsius into Fahrenheit). But while the LOTR films were produced by and for multicultural societies putatively dedicated to racial, ethnic, and cultural harmony, the fantasy of cross-cultural cooperation and harmony relies on (while denying) racist discourses and structures that are themselves “real” yet elusive. By obscuring their own premises—the economic, political, social, and psychological processes that rely on, create, and exacerbate racism in our world—the films package and sell liberal multiculturalism to audiences.

Making the Lord of the Rings in a World of Fantasy

Comparing the context of the films’ production to its content and strategies of distribution cast light on the division between the realities and perceptions of race. The films’ production and distribution epitomize the logic of global late capitalism: “transnational” labor forces (both in terms of recruiting skilled workers from anywhere in the world as well as in terms of core nation/First World capital utilizing periphery/non-West labor), global and diversified marketing and merchandising, and an increasing emphasis in developed/First-World countries on information/technology industries and short-term, nonunionized, mobile labor. These processes of financial and political restructuring can be directly related to social changes and issues of cultural diversity.

The production process of the LOTR films epitomizes the flexibility and reach of new forms of production in a globalized economy. Although the U.S. companies Miramax and then New Line financed the films, the actual production was relegated to lower-cost New Zealand. Renowned Tolkien artist Alan Lee, whom Jackson recruited along with John Howe to help design the film, speaks of the film as a “huge collaborative process,” involving over 3,000 crew members and over 300 people in the art department who worked for three to four years to create Middle Earth. Richard Taylor, the president, supervisor, and spiritual guru of Weta Workshop, discusses how he hired principally young New Zealand artists who did not necessarily have film experience but had a solid background in art. Artisans, craftspeople, and artists in New Zealand who could make swords, costumes, sets, masks, and a wide variety of objects—in both traditional and innovative ways—were contracted for this film, working “day and night” for several years. Although the films were shot in New Zealand, the cast, crew, and others involved with the production and marketing were international. Specialized information- and technology-innovators were brought in from all over the world for this short-term project designed for mass global consumption. In various ways, these workers are information/technology workers, not quite “part-time” but nevertheless temporary, mobile, young, and not unionized.

Like most products consumed in the United States, the final product hides the labor that went into producing it. The obscuring of technical wizardry and aesthetic manipulation characterizes not only contemporary fantasy/sci-fi films but, in various ways, films, texts, and other works of art in the past. But, as claimed repeatedly by Jackson, Taylor, and others, in contrast to the delightfully cheesy Harryhausen movies and even the original Star Wars films, the breakthrough of LOTR is the incredible realism of the fantasy. Also hidden is state support and involvement in the production of this high-tech export product. For example, the New Zealand army not only constructed the bridge but also built roads and planted the trees and gardens for Hobbiton at Mata Mata.

At the same time, the film’s marketing strategy entails recording all this information and selling it as a product. The LOTR franchise broke ground not only in terms of technical filmmaking but also in its innovative, synergistic marketing strategies. “The modern strategies [for marketing] of the big Hollywood companies” entail far more than the film itself; merchandizing and marketing campaigns involve repeat viewings, DVDs (in original formats, extended versions, and extra appendices), free Web publicity, video games, infotainment as advertisements on networks like the Sci Fi channel, magazines, etc. As Thompson observes, “A fantasy film, especially as part of a franchise and even more especially as part of a franchise with an existing fan base, can generate enormous income from licensed merchandise and tie-ins.” New Line and AOL, both subsidiaries of mammoth media conglomerate Time Warner, also broke new ground in their savvy manipulation of the internet publicity campaign, “controlling rather than thwarting” piracy for publicity reaching over 65 million people around the world.

But while the films were made by and for peoples from several countries (primarily New Zealand, the United States, England, and Australia) that constitute an increasingly transnational popular culture in a global economy, New Zealand itself remains marked by the history of colonialism and imperialism in two senses. First, as a former British colony, New Zealanders retain cultural, economic, and political ties to the former Mother Country. Beyond the general influence of British television on Jackson, particularly the work of veterans Bernard Hill (Theoden) and Christopher Lee (Saruman), several other references to former colonial relations appear throughout interviews and the DVD commentaries. One amusing example is Jackson’s proud reference to Australians and New Zealanders as the “crasser members of the Commonwealth.” Second, the Maori peoples, Pacific Island immigrants (PI), and the entire country continue to struggle with economic, racial, and cultural problems. Examining this history of imperialism, in contrast to and in conjunction with the films, can help us to talk about race and racial issues in more productive terms.

New Zealand has traditionally prided itself on its commitment to diversity; as Jane Kelsey puts it, the country “used to claim credit as the first country to give women the vote, as the birthplace of the welfare state, for a harmonious multiracial society and, more recently, for being ‘clean, green and nuclear free.’ ”41 But economic disparities along racial and ethnic lines have in fact increased since New Zealand restructured its economy for the global markets in which LOTR has been so successful. Like many countries that had formerly emphasized industrialization in the decades following WWII, in the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand shifted from a reliance on manufacturing and state-sponsored services to deregulation, flexible accumulation, and information-, technology, and service-based industries. The “New Zealand experiment,” as it has been dubbed, has been praised by the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as an “international success story.” But these economic changes have disproportionately hurt Maori and Pacific Islanders; moreover, the resulting social marginalization of these groups has been cast in terms of racial and cultural differences. The racialized wealth gap contradicts and complicates New Zealand’s narrative—shared by many in other first-world nations—that racism is on the decline.

Economic restructuring has directly impacted race relations in New Zealand, as Maori and Pacific Islanders, who provided much of the labor required during the postwar expansion years, have found themselves increasingly cast aside. Many state industries traditionally held by Maori and Pacific Islanders were privatized, including post office, railway, and forestry service. Overall, cuts in manufacturing and state-related jobs led to a two-thirds decline in employment between 1985 and 1989, and 80% of those who lost their jobs were Maori. Maori unemployment peaked at 27% in 1992, and PI unemployment peaked at over 30% in 1991; by the mid-1990s, Maori unemployment had fallen to 16% and PI to 17%, but these were still higher than the rates for the overall population. While one-third of whites in New Zealand are working class, one-half of Maoris and two-thirds of Pacific Islanders are working class. In other words, a disproportionate number of Maori and Pacific Islanders are unemployed or working poor.

The media in New Zealand—as in the United States—casts social problems resulting from economic disparities in terms of race and culture. For example, Judy McGregor and Joanne TeAwa point out that the news media focuses on “racialised forms of problems or conflict” instead of “deeper social, political or economic causes and backgrounds of these conflicts.” Despite the emerging, increasingly disparate class system, the divide between Maoris/Pacific Islanders and the rest of New Zealanders is seen in terms of a “racial problem.” Or, paralleling moves by the Slate film critics, structural and systemic problems are cast in terms of identity, culture, and race.

Citing William J. Wilson’s When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, D. Baker compares the New Zealand underclass to the “dispossessed class of urban blacks and whites” around the world, “individuals or groups with limited skills, education or capital” who are “faced with the possibility of structural unemployment or subsistence-paying jobs.” In the Pacific and other places, underdevelopment is the product of advanced capital drawing on precapitalist economies. Uneven economic development has and continues to shape the racial divides and discourses of developing and developed nations. In this context, the typecasting of Makoare and Baker give the lie not only to the dream of multiculturalism and international cosmopolitanism, it also indicates the socioeconomic history that shapes the racialized hierarchy of New Zealand. The films’ “racializations,” drawing on popular racial discourses, mystify race into the abstract (it is there but not), ignoring and denying the actual political realities of racialization and late capitalism while also relying on those very processes.

These processes rely on the burial of race—or the privileging of certain conceptions of race and the denial of others. Liberal analyses of race relations are premised on the notion that racial conflict arises from identity/ethnicity/culture, but “racism and ethnic categorization,” Loomis argues, “are important means of class domination which are given effect through individual behavior, institutional policy and public ideological discourses.” Limiting the terms of the debate to identity and discourse does not, ultimately, explain the processes that unevenly distribute resources and divide potential working-class allies by racial animosities, often over a manufactured, unnecessary scarcity of resources. Concomitant to a “culturalist” understanding is the assumption that “racism” either no longer exists or only exists among a few extremist radicals. Purely cultural multiculturalism is easily assimilable into fantasies that draw on a polyglot of cultures, in content and form. For example, in LOTR, the filmmakers note that the funeral of Théodon’s son Theodred (cut from the theatrical version) combines an Old English elegy, sung by Éowyn, with the Maori custom in which the men hand the body to the women. Thus, LOTR exemplifies how Hollywood can use liberal multiculturalism as a selling point while also relying on and perpetuating racialized discourses and structural disparities.

I want to conclude by discussing how the same limits on considerations of race in Lord of the Rings also apply to a film as stridently “realistic” as Crash. The 2005 film won both accolades (including the Academy Award for Best Picture) and criticism, from film reviews in Slate, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times. The film was cowritten and directed by Canadian Paul Haggis, who has discussed the film as a response to his own experience of being carjacked. But given the terms with which many Americans think and talk about race, a movie like Crash cannot help but fail. Its failure to present a vision of multicultural harmony prevents it from even being a true blockbuster like Lord of the Rings. On another level, those who believe race is an issue but think of it only in terms of culture or identity will have none of those basic assumptions challenged by Crash. In the film, racism is a personal failing that infects everyone and is, for the most part, separate from other issues. That is, although, race is, as one reviewer writes, the “one obsessive issue … [that] effects relationships and decisions, shapes and distorts character, and determines social policy,” we never really understand why race is an issue. It simply emanates from the primordial racial differences of the various discrete groups. The purpose of the movie for this audience, as the consistently liberal multiculturalist Roger Ebert writes, is that “anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves.” All the characters are determined by their race, and redemption—particularly for whites—will come primarily through understanding. As Peter Bradshaw observes, the angry white woman played by Sandra Bullock “is actually in need of a hug. So is everyone else.” But despite its earnest intentions, the film exacerbates the belief that race is primarily a personal failing, mostly a product of prejudice and bad feelings rather than larger economic and political structures.

The one exception to this treatment of race is the predicament of the policeman played by Matt Dillon. His racism is linked to his anger and frustration that he cannot provide medical care for his ailing father due to the bureaucratic hurdles of his health insurance provider. In the scene, Dillon’s character pleads with the female, African American insurance supervisor, played by Loretta Devine, who can fix his problems with a stroke of her pen. He explains that his father, who had owned a custodial company and paid fair wages to black workers during decades when no one else was, lost everything when the city’s post-civil rights policies began to favor minority-owned businesses. This, the only moment in the film that hints at how political economy actually shapes the terms of race, is actually used to justify racism and criticize affirmative action. Roger Ebert argues that Dillon’s racism toward Devine’s character is “only an excuse for his anger” at the HMO, but, on the contrary, through its obsessive fixation on race as a personal failing, the film casts everything else as a bad by-product of racism. Instead of showing how those structures of power, which often take bureaucratic forms, imprison us all and indeed lead to easy scapegoats, the film reassures us that it is race, and not those structures, that cause our problems. And the film is most problematic when it fantasizes that such a health insurance supervisor would deny coverage on the basis of reverse racism. In the real world, it is more likely that financial and profit pressures would force the hand of an insurance supervisor, regardless of race or gender. So Crash, like LOTR, seeks to assuage fears and liberal guilt, but its terms actually obscure the conditions that create racial inequality and anger.

In arguing this, my purpose is not to return to the old claim that race (or gender or sexuality) should be subsumed under economics. My point is not that this history of production and economics is the “real story” belying the fantasy; it is just not that simple a bifurcation. But discussion of discourses, semiotics, and attitudes about race without consideration of political, economic, and social structures not only leaves out a large part of the picture, it actually has led to a kind of dead-end in contemporary conversations about race. The Lord of the Rings films, taken on their own terms, are beautiful cultural productions that have brought pleasure to people from all walks of life, and this aspect of the films is real, too. The problem is that our “reality” beyond the films is as fantastical as the films if we believe in the success of liberal multiculturalism, that issues of racial and gendered discrimination, oppression, and exploitation are relics of the past, as mythical as trolls, elves, and wise, good kings. The entirety of the production and distribution of films such as LOTR can actually show a reality more real than the fantasies of happily multicultural societies in which we so want to believe, despite the facts, and which Hollywood is and will continue to be more than happy to sell to us.