This post contains a small amount of spoilers regarding The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
I knew from the end of the first chapter of The Hunger Games, that I was going to write about the series because these books are, in a word, amazing. They’re so well done that I devoured the trilogy in just three short days… I honestly could not fall asleep if I was in the middle of one of these books. That said, I had already heard about and been angry about the racist casting decisions for the movie version of this book before I picked it up… now that I have finished the series that anger has been ignited into full-out rage.
A summary of the situation, via Racialicious:
Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks. But a huge, devoted fan base has fallen in love with these books and with Katniss, described as olive-skinned and dark haired. Yet the director still couldn’t extend the casting call to include anyone other than Caucasian? Before the Harry Potter movies, no one knew who Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, or Emma Watson were. Why wasn’t an unknown actress of biracial, Latina or Mediterranean heritage given a shot? They could cast Tyler Perry in drag (*shudder*) in this role and it would still make buckets of money.
Katniss’ racial identity is left somewhat vague, we don’t know what she is, but we know what she’s not. She’s not blonde haired and blue eyed like her mother and sister and Peeta. She’s dark, like Gale (can’t wait to see who gets that part). And even though we know that the cinema magic that can turn handsome 40-ish Brad Pitt into 80-year old Benjamin Button can surely turn J.Law into the grey-eyed, black haired Katniss, that’s not good enough.
In my mind, this particular casting decision stands out among the sea of other movies that also contain shitty, white-washed casting decisions. Not only are these particular movie producers keeping yet another talented non-white actress from landing a role in an industry where most roles are not written with them in mind, but by making this casting decision they are stripping out a great deal of the trilogy’s message. Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games tie some fairly complex social justice concepts up into an engaging and appealing young adult package. By choosing to cast this movie in the way that they have the producers and directors are sending a strong message, a message that says they could care less about the meaning of these books. The producers could care less about the parallels that readers could draw between the society in the Hunger Games and the real world; a parallel that can serve as a jumping-off point for discussing how people who fall into marginalized groups in our society (like people of color, for instance) are often exploited for the entertainment and comfort of the people who hold the power (usually rich white dudes.)
In the books Katniss is olive-skinned and dark haired like most people from the Seam, the run-down area of their district where she lives. Her mother and sister are exceptions in this district, they are light-skinned and blonde haired because Katniss’ her mother belonged to the merchant class before she married Katniss’ father. This is important because over the course of this trilogy the struggles between the different classes within district (the people within the Seam, the merchants, the peacekeepers/mayor) are fleshed out and contrasted with the struggle that exists between the people in all of these groups and the people who live lives of complete luxury in the capital.
For me, this was a powerful illustration of the way that the small group who holds the most power (in our kyriarchial society that would be the rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, christian dudes, in the books it was the people of the capitol) can manipulate the situation to cause the groups of people being oppressed to see one another as the enemy, effectivley distracting them from attacking the real oppressor and freeing everyone. The crux of this whole series centers around Katniss working through this deception to realize who the real enemy is so that she can destroy that enemy.
Even without these implications, though, this casting decision still sucks. Why? Just think about it this way: how often have we seen a person of color cast to play a character explicitly described as white in the source material? I can’t think of a single example. That says something to me.
Hollywood tries to shift the blame here. Just like Bloomsbury did with Justine Larbaliester’s book, they claim that movies starring people of color just don’t sell as well. Basically, they make it seem like the audience’s fault that this discrimination takes place. This is bullshit. The studios, the producers, these directors… these people have money and they have creative control. If they wanted to they could produce a movie starring a woman of color, make it epic, advertise it in the way it deserves… and make bank. Fact of the matter is they choose not to because… why would they? Having a culture where most of the people depicted in our media are white helps to maintain white as the norm, and preserve these people’s power.
Lets pause for a moment and look at the people directing/producing this movie…
Does anyone else notice a pattern? This isn’t even all of the people in power, there are several more images of white people I could post up here, but its enough to support my point.
Now, I am not saying that all of these people are bad people. I’m not even saying that they intentionally acted in a racist manner… although, not for nothing, the casting call was pretty damn clear about who they wanted to leave out:
On a wide computer monitor is a website run by Breakdown Services, where Ms. Zane’s staff has posted the single paragraph laying out the filmmakers’ broad criteria for Katniss. She should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone “underfed but strong,” and “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.” Since the notice was posted two weeks ago, more than 1,600 resumes had been submitted for the role of Katniss. So far, 25 of these submissions had been moved to a “selected” heading for potential contenders. [Source]
The casting of a white girl for this role doesn’t seem like much of an accident/coincidence/fair process to me. Still, I don’t even have to argue over how purposeful their racism was in this situation because, regardless of that, it is undeniable that these people have a lot of privilege. Privilege that exists, in part, because the media in the USA (that they help to produce) presents people who look like them as the default day after day after day through a million casting decisions that go just like this one did. Even if they are not intentionally feeding back into this system that benefits them, they are doing it. Their intent does not make one bit of difference to the overall cultural impact that decisions like this one have.
This situation isn’t all bad, however, because the fans of these novels are PISSED about the racist casting call. In fact, enough fans are pissed off that there are snarky, mean-spirited articles being written about the drama in mainstream publications! Like this article, which called fans of the book “crazy” for being pissed off over the casting of this movie… at least some of the comments are pretty badass:
“It’s not about her hair color it’s about the fact that they had a chance for once to actually have a strong leading female who had dark skin instead of the usual paler-than-white. Apparently, darker skinned girls just can’t be leads unless the movie is dealing with racial issues. Especially since odds are they only cast her for the publicity that comes with casting an Oscar nominated actress.” [Commenter]
“Oh Vulture. Thank you so much for ignoring the entire subject of the whitewashing of this film, which is at the core of much of the fan distaste. How refreshing and out of the ordinary to see a major media outlet write off those who are appalled at Hollywood’s lack of recognition of actors/actresses who are not white as being ‘crazy.’ So what if Katniss is described, in the books, as having straight black hair, olive skin and grey eyes and that the casting call asked specifically for someone Caucasian? I’m sure that the producers considered every skin tone under the ‘fair’ umbrella–from alabaster to ivory, porcelain to light beige. There’s diversity in Hollywood for you folks! ” [Commenter]
“I love Jennifer Lawrence and I think she will be excellent in the role. However I do get the fan’s point, that Katniss’ looks i.e. her racial identify is a key element to the narrative. It’s not simply that she’s skinny brunette, it’s that her looks explain her racial make up which the author uses to illustrate the class conflict in the story. The blonde, fair skinned characters are of a higher class, so by changing the racial identity of this character you remove one of the critical themes that drew readers to the book in the first place.” [Commenter]
I am so disappointed in the producers, director, casting director of this book, as well as in Suzanne Collins herself who made a positive statement about the casting of Katniss that never even mentioned the limiting casting call. I think mostly, though, I am disappointed to be a part of a society that by and large just sits by and lets this happen. Its time to change that, to speak out by writing the people who make these movies and telling them that we want to see equality in their casting. (Or else we’ll hit them where it hurts: ticket sales.) I’m writing my letter tonight. Who’s with me?
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