Cairo: Here Be Dragons
In the middle of The Desolation of Smaug, the second of a trilogy of Peter Jackson films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved 1937 novel, The Hobbit, Thorin, the king of the dwarves gives a rousing speech that asks the people of Lake-town to reclaim their heritage. Because of its location on a large body of water, Lake-town was a central trading center in a past golden age before the dragon came and destroyed it. In the middle of the speech, Jackson’s camera cuts to a close-up of a black woman. At first, I thought this was merely Hollywood cinema responding feebly to questions of racial bias in its representational structures, which are indeed rampant. For example, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books want to imagine a pre-racial Britain when white rich kids at boarding school controlled the country, and massive immigration from the colonies had not yet transformed the social fabric. After the first Potter film, when movie cameras revealed this whitewashing of the wizarding world, Rowling herself and the film’s producers (largely through the hiring of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third film) began casting more multi-racially, and cutting now and again to minor characters who were not white.
But this, what we might call the racialized cut, serves a more complex function in The Desolation of Smaug than it does in most politically correct contemporary Hollywood films. For one thing, Jackson’s camera keeps cutting to black people in the next few minutes of the film as the townspeople grapple with how they will respond to the dwarves’ quest into the mountain, which will surely raise the ire of the dragon once more. As I pondered Lake-town’s corrupt mayor and his inept and cowardly behavior, I finally, after nearly a dozen hours of movie going, began thinking about something interesting while watching a Lord of the Rings movie.
Jackson is almost single-handedly responsible for the global construction of a modern New Zealand identity. The island nation’s gross domestic product is about $140 billion. Each Lord of the Rings movie makes about one third of a billion dollars in global theatrical release alone, which means over a billion dollars in total revenues after tallying all of the profitable ancillary market profits (home video, cable distribution, and the like). This means that Peter Jackson’s six Lord of the Rings films alone will represent nearly 5% of the gross domestic product of an important industrialized modern nation. That of course does not even consider The Lord of the Rings’ role in the rise of the New Zealand film industry (particularly in post-production) and the massive waves of tourism to the country inspired by the popularity of the films.
In short, Peter Jackson’s films are about New Zealand as much as they are about Middle Earth. While not a filmmaker interested in post-colonialism (the success of the previous generation of New Zealand national cinema, in particular Lee Tamahori’s stunning film, Once Were Warriors), Jackson’s films grapple with the relationship between past and present in New Zealand. The characters in Lake-town are the only humans in the film; the fact that some of them are people of color, must certainly relate more to the realities of New Zealand (a British colony filled with white people who traditionally had higher status that the native Maori) than it does to Tolkien’s fantasy of white Nordic civilization’s battle between industrialization and pristine greenery.
And yet, what interested me most was a third possibility. All movies are an engagement between filmmakers and audiences. Thus, once the film leaves the filmmakers’ control and arrives at movie theatres, new contexts of reception are activated. When Thorin’s rousing speech positioned Lake-town as a former thriving hub of trade, now rendered a wasteland by Smaug, I thought of Cairo, Illinois. And then, when Jackson’s camera cuts to the first person of color I noticed in the film, and kept doing so for the next five minutes, I found an unexpected journey of my own. All films, even massive blockbusters, negotiate between the global nature of their release, and the local, both of the real places in which they were filmed, and the even more real places in which they are consumed. Tolkien’s novels have nothing to do with Cairo, Illinois, and yet they have everything to do with our worries about how well we might be able to form a vibrant community, in Illinois as much as in the Shire.
In the 19th century, Cairo, Illinois, a town of 30,000 prosperous people, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was a more important trading port than New York City. The town’s literary importance is best expressed by Mark Twain setting a central chapter in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the town, as Huck and Jim cross from South to North to escape a failing America. By the mid-1970s, Cairo’s population had collapsed to 3,000, a victim of racism. An important battle in the Civil Rights movement was fought there, as black people began demanding to be treated equally, and white people at first refused to change (filling the town pool with concrete rather than allowing black kids to swim there), and then merely economically and physically abandoning the town altogether. In short, Cairo is Illinois’ Lake-town, destroyed not by the greed of dwarves and dragons, but by the sin of racism.
Tolkien’s fantasy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is the language of hope, expressing allegorically how we might fight evil to defend our nature against the bellicose industrialized weaponry that seeks to destroy us. On the other hand, because it can be easily dismissed as so very different from our real world, it constantly slips away from its ideological targets. It is thrilling that people revel in the beautiful cinema that is Peter Jackson’s imagination of Tolkien’s world. And yet, where are Illinois’ Thorins, pleading the case for the need to rejuvenate our Lake-town, Cairo, a mere 50 miles from where I now sit?
– Walter Metz