Racebending Roundup: Hunger Games & Red Dawn Follow The Money

By Arturo R. García

The main character and narrator of the story. Katniss is slender with black hair, grey eyes and olive skin. She is sixteen years old and attends a secondary school somewhere in Appalachia, known in the book as District 12, the coal mining sector. She is often quiet and is generally liked by District 12’s residents, mostly because of her ability to provide highly-prized game for a community in which starvation is a constant threat. Katniss is an excellent hunter, archer, gatherer, and trapper, skilled just like her deceased father. She and her father shared singing ability, too. Since his death in a mine explosion, which killed Gale’s father too, Katniss has been the sole provider for her family, a role she was reluctantly forced to assume at the age of eleven when her mother’s grief overcame her ability to function. Katniss is surprised when her sister is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, and willingly steps forward to take her place out of love.

– Character profile for Katniss Everdeen, via Goodreads

Does that description – more specifically, that physical description – sound like it matches Jennifer Lawrence, pictured above?

Only in Hollywood.

It was announced yesterday that Lawrence, coming off an Academy Awards nomination for Winter’s bone, had been chosen to play Katniss in a film adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first story in a three-book series that sees the character become a folk heroine, then a revolutionary leader, in a post-apocalyptic North America.

According to Racebending.com, Katniss’ skin tone is of specific interest to her character’s backstory: she shares that description with other residents of The Seam, an impoverished area in the Appalachian district where she lives. Among them is her father, a mixed-race miner. By comparison, her mother and sister stand out in the community of the Seam precisely because they are blonde and white-skinned. Which makes Racebending’s conclusion nothing short of accurate:

Given this story takes place hundreds of years into the future, Katniss is almost definitely of mixed ethnicity–making her one of very few protagonists in young adult fiction who would be considered biracial or multi-ethnic by “real world” standards.

Of course, as Marissa Lee notes, Paramount Pictures, which is financing the film, stacked the casting deck right off the bat, saying candidates for the role, “‘should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone ‘underfed but strong,’ and ‘naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.’”

Director Gary Ross justified the choice to Entertainment Weekly by saying the series’ author, Suzanne Collins, gave him her blessing:

Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. It wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.

Whether the series’ fans respond as positively has yet to be seen. If Paramount and Ross aren’t careful, they might have another Airbender mess on their hands.


Meanwhile, the updated version of Red Dawn, the 1984 action-cult “classic” is getting another update, this time behind the scenes: The Los Angeles Times reported that the remake, which was to feature China as the invading force in place of the original Soviet Union, will now cast China as a smaller player in a coalition led by North Korea, with digital trickery being used to minimize the Chinese threat.

But don’t go thinking this decision is based on an outpouring of sympathy toward the Chinese people by MGM. The studio, which has had the film on the shelf while sorting its’ financial affairs, is hoping the switch will make the new Dawn easier to sell in the increasingly-important Chinese film market:

A number of Hollywood studios are deepening their business ties to the world’s most populous nation. Disney is building a theme park outside Shanghai, Sony Pictures co-produced the recent “Karate Kid” remake with the government-affiliated China Film Group, and News Corp.‘s Fox International Productions recently made the Chinese-language hit “Hot Summer Days” there. Even independent studios like Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment will release their films “Killers” and “Red” in China in coming months.

Dan Mintz, whose DMG Entertainment is a leading producer and distributor of movies in China, said the “Red Dawn” story dramatizes how Western companies can fundamentally misunderstand how the nation works. If the picture had gone out without redacting the Chinese invaders, he said, “there would have been a real backlash. It’s like being invited to a dinner party and insulting the host all night long. There’s no way to look good…. The film itself was not a smart move.”

Mintz, who met with the producers of “Red Dawn” to offer some suggestions on how they could proceed, said that doing business in China requires a partnership approach. “The more you reach out, the better your relationships will be,” Mintz said. “This is bigger than a single film.”

So, a movie about Communist invaders is being edited so as to not offend a Communist nation. Instead of WOLVERIIINES, maybe the battle cry in the remake should be IRONYYYYYYYY!

Top image courtesy of Celebrity Pictures

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • Mumtaz

    Camila Belle, for Hunger Games. She’s POC and fits the original character description!

  • Pingback: Why the Casting of the Hunger Games Matters | The Interroblog()

  • Anonymous

    I’m definitely NOT trying to say that white people read characters as white and black people read characters as black. If that’s how I sounded, I’m glad you corrected me.

    I am just saying that our experiences affect how we see things. American culture as a whole tends to see white as “normal” or “default”. We all respond to that in different ways, so it’s good to be self-critical.

  • Pingback: The Pop Up: 2011-03-22 | Xhibit P()

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  • ray

    I read the books and always thought of Katniss as white. I never got the impression that she or her father were mixed. Rue was obviously black, just as “Foxface” was obviously white. But “olive skin” doesn’t really tell you much. I’m white and I have “olive skin.” If you search it on google images, the first images range from Charlize Theron to Iman; it really is flexible and ambiguous.

    • Anonymous

      Have you thought about whether there might be any connection between being white and assuming that the main character is white? I’m not making any accusations against you, I think that it is a very natural part of the way that we read to project ourselves into characters. (Again, I’m not saying that YOU can’t relate to people of color and that’s why you read Katniss as white).

      However, when a book is being written or a movie is being produced for general audiences, a lot of assumptions are made about what is “relatable”. It is thought that white people of every hue will have an easier time relating to a white lead than they would to a person of color, and “general audiences” = white people. So making an “olive skinned” person fair-complexioned becomes less of a leap than making her a light-skinned black woman, for example. These calculations exclude the experience of people who are not white and have fewer representations to identify with.

  • Anonymous

    By the time this gets made, she’ll be a vampire.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=615763230 Cherry Davis

    Hopefully the fans of the series will show their displeasure by voting with their pocketbooks. It’s the only thing that Hollywood cares about!

  • Facebook User

    IN the EW article about the casting, the director says

    “There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American.”

    I am so tired of people saying they “didn’t notice” that Rue is black. That is was “ambiguous”! That Rue “Could be anything! Native American, Hispanic, East Asian, etc” anything but black, evidently.

    • Anonymous

      It’s always “ambiguous” when the character is not white. But the original character is white, people will fight tooth and nail for the character to remain white.

  • nicepebbles

    WomanOnTheStreet hit the nail on the head on how an exec would go about casting. The problem with that thinking is it doesn’t take into account the built in audience for the book. This isn’t some untested story. It also doesn’t give audiences unfamiliar with this story any credit.

    I can’t believe the author said yes. I guess she’s looking at the dollar signs, too. I was going to check this book out. Now I’m not so sure. I need to know the author’s reasoning.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly hope this blows up like Last Airbender. I’m just curious if they’re still going to let Rue be black or will the author allow ‘flexibility’ there too?

  • WomanOnTheStreet

    I don’t know anything about the Hunger Games, but I do remember this actress pretty strongly as being in “Winter’s Bone.” If I were a film executive, trying to think of actresses between the age of 15 and 20 who fit into an Appalachian story, she’d immediately spring to mind. She’d be the only one, actually. She’s new and fresh in my memory and nearly won an Oscar, and that’s pretty good street cred.

    What I wouldn’t think was, “Huh, maybe I should look at millions of potential unknown actresses I’ve never heard of before, and that potential audiences have never heard of, and risk my entire film and financing and marketing on someone untested.”

    I’m sure I could find someone OK if I looked hard enough, but would I choose that person over an Oscar nominee? Who has already been in a really good film involving Appalachia and coal mines? Highly doubtful.

    • Cf

      You’re really exaggerating. It is not difficult to find a talented actress with dark hair and olive skin. Those are very common features, in fact, shared by people of many different ethnicities. I like Jennifer Lawrence; she is a very good actress but she is just not appropriate for this role.

    • windup

      there were actually multiple names being bandied around for the role of Katniss, many of whom were arguably as well known or more famous than Jennifer Lawrence. One name that seemed to have a pretty big push was Hailee Steinfeld, who was the heart and soul of “True Grit”, and also happens to be mixed-race (Portuguese mother, Jewish father)

      • Brandon

        How is a Portugese mother and a Jewish father mixed race? Are there no Portugese Jews?

        And just what race is Jewish, anyway?

    • pak

      “What I wouldn’t think was, “Huh, maybe I should look at millions of potential unknown actresses I’ve never heard of before, and that potential audiences have never heard of, and risk my entire film and financing and marketing on someone untested.” ”

      And if the producers of Winter’s Bone had taken that attitude, then Jennifer Lawrence wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to be in it that movie and would have never gotten nominated for the Oscars.

  • Teknobirdsong

    ugh. this hunger games casting decision is so disappointing. what a wasted opportunity.

  • Juke

    Fuh, come on, Jennifer. I like you. Please, please reconsider this.

  • http://nympholepsy.tumblr.com nympholepsy

    I don’t usually get up in arms about casting decisions, but the Hunger Games are near and dear to my heart and I’m kind of devastated by this?? Like… even putting aside the fact that Katniss really ought to be mixed, Jennifer is very pretty but very conventionally so, whereas Katniss, I thought, was supposed to be more… controversial? And ugh, she’s just… so white. SO DISAPPOINTED.