Why the Casting of The Hunger Games Matters

By Guest Contributor Shannon Riffe, cross-posted from The Interrobangs

My corner of the blogosphere erupted last week with the announcement that Jennifer Lawrence will play Katniss in the upcoming film versions of The Hunger Games trilogy.  I agree with a lot of the outrage, and found editorials like this one, obviously written by someone who has never read the book, infuriating. So let’s lay it all out on the table.

Why are so many people so upset about this announcement? It’s just a movie, right?

It is just a movie. And that’s exactly the point. It is a frivolous, entertaining, blockbuster of an action franchise that will be sure to draw big publicity and big crowds and probably major box office bucks. And that’s why this would have been an amazing chance to take a “gamble” on someone who didn’t look like the stereotypical Hollywood starlet. Can you think of the last time that a person of color fronted a big budget action movie? How about a woman of color?

One only need look at the endless parade of remakes and sequels to know that 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.

Because in a world where the majority of readers seem to not even understand that Rue is black (example A, example, B, example C – just read the comments on this one), a wig and a spray tan falls far short. Luckily the director has stated unequivocally that Rue and Thresh are black. So I guess we’ve got that to celebrate, even though it should have never been up for debate in the first place.

As a woman of color who reads and writes YA, I’m committed to seeing more characters of color in stories where their race isn’t the issue. I found a lot to admire in the Hunger Games and its subtle, smart treatment of race and class. And that’s why I am so disappointed with this casting choice, even though it’s just a movie. Ultimately, maybe the answer to this issue is that all of us who enjoy writing and reading YA fiction continue to work on our stories, continue to question and critique the who, what, and why of our characters’ identities. And maybe one day a bestselling YA book and its film remake will both feature girls of color in the lead role.

Image courtesy of NYMag

  • D.

    “Can you think of the last time that a person of color fronted a big budget action movie? How about a woman of color?”

    I hesitated to post this because this movie could be all kinds of problematic and bad, but I did recently see a trailer for “Colombiana”, which is coming out later this year and stars Zoe Saldana. Here’s hoping…

  • Pingback: Racism, Hollywood, and The Hunger Games | Imagine Today

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kimberly-Clark/100002086459475 Kimberly Clark

    Sanaa Lathan as the hero was wonderful! Recently discovered great piece of artwork someone did of her as the she predator:

    http://wulfsbane.deviantart.com/gallery/#/d2dgv32

    As far as Jake Gyllenhaal goes, I swear Persians for the most part keep saying that they are, in fact, white – and that the casting was good. I’m sure this is not all Persians, but when I went on the message boards at imdb, non-Persians seem to be more upset than anyone else at the casting.

    • Anonymous

      That’s because non-Persians probably know nothing about what Persians look like, and falsely assumed they were brown skinned! In fact, as pictures will show, most Persians look, and are, white.

  • Kaycee

    They were talking about this on other boards. But like I said on those boards, they could have cast Zoe Kravitz. She is the perfect description of Karniss

  • Cf

    I was really disappointed with Jennifer Lawrence’s casting as Katniss. I don’t have anything against her; in fact I think she’s a great actress. But the role of Katniss is really better-suited for someone who looks like Katniss is supposed to, and c’mon people, it’s not like there’s some shortage of dark haired, olive-skinned young actresses in this country!

    I’m also very confused by people who read all three books without even realizing that Katniss (and even Rue!) are not lily. The books aren’t primarily about race, but their appearances are mentioned quite a bit.

  • Anonymous

    I was reading this one author’s blog and she didn’t seem to recall that Rue was black. I wanted to scream it from the heavens. RUE IS BLACKKKKK. THRESH IS BLACK. I didn’t make that up! KATNISS IS NOT WHITE. BUT LO AND BEHOLD, the guys they are considering for Gale are WHITE.

    What.
    A.
    Shock.

  • Tamani G.

    Not to derail, but why hasn’t Hailee Steinfeld’s name come up? She’s the right age, pretty, racially mixed, and on Hollywood’s up-and-coming list. She seems like a perfect Katniss.

    • ST

      Yes, she’s perfect. It’d be a shame to waste such a great candidate.

    • Facebook User

      Reports were saying she was in the running. I personally believe she didn’t get picked b/c she didn’t win the Oscar she was nominated for.

      • James

        Well… Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar as well, and she didn’t win.

  • Facebook User

    I definitely envisioned Katniss as being biracial considering that her district is most likely some where in Virginia. A commenter on another blog posted this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melungeons

    “Melungeons are defined as having racially mixed ancestry; they do not exhibit characteristics that can be classified as of a single racial phenotype. Most modern-day descendants of Appalachian families traditionally regarded as Melungeon are generally European American in appearance, often, though not always, with dark hair and eyes, and a swarthy or olive complexion”

  • http://mclicious.wordpress.com mclicious

    That editorial was absolutely infuriating. So are the comments on that dream cast post, where people insist that “just because they have dark hair and skin doesn’t mean they’re black.” I bet those are also the people who would consider themselves “colorblind” for saying so.

    Uccch. I really think Jennifer Lawrence will do a great job, and I think she’s a fabulous actress, but I’m still disappointed about it. She’s going to be offered millions of roles. Can’t this one go to someone unknown, who fits the character in the book?

    • Facebook User

      I jumped in on the comments on the “dream cast” post & now the author has shut down the comments cause he feels like people are personally attacking him. Which isn’t happening. At all.

  • http://swirlspice.com Erica M

    Wow, those Premium Hollywood readers really do not want anyone to be of color. Only “acceptable,” non-threatening, really-tan-looking people. They actually pick a person of color with dark hair for Katniss and someone argued that she didn’t have light eyes! FFS.

    • Facebook User

      Yeah. The author of that post just shut down the comments b/c ppl are “playing the race card” AND b/c we just “think he’s a horrible person”

  • Anonymous

    This would have been the time for the author to put her foot down and tell Hollywood “If you really want to make my books into movies, then you cast the main character as she’s written, not as the actress you think can sell the movie. The books and their fanbase have sold the movies already.” As greedy as Hollywood is for money and blockbuster movies, they probably would have caved. Maude knows there are plenty of talented actresses who could play Katniss without the addition of a wig, colored contacts, and a spray tan.

    • http://mclicious.wordpress.com/ mclicious

      It’s actually surprising that Collins is being given so much input in the casting, actually. Though it’s sad, and a similar thing is happening with Alicia Valdes’ Dirty Girls TV adaptation, authors can’t actually demand to have casting go their way–unless, for some reason, they get some kind of awesome contract with that written into it. Or if the director and producers are just really nice. Otherwise, you sign your book away, and then the movie doesn’t belong to you in any way. So Collins can make all the fuss she wants, but this is really about Hollywood. She has next to no power in the adaption of her series.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    and Hollywood still continues its sickening obsession for blue-eyed blondes. Mmm, let’s see how many other blondes are starring in big movies that are playing in cinemas right now? Amanda Seyfried in that Red Riding Hood chick, Emily Browning in Sucker Punch, Cameron Diaz in that upcoming flick, etc… who else is missing from the list?

  • http://www.cadenheadfamily.com Tiff

    Agreed!!

  • Arkstar

    Oh god, seriously, we have to go through this AGAIN? I had this weird fantasy that after M. Night ‘Racebender’ Shymalan maybe, just maybe, somebody somewhere might have learned the lesson to cast POC characters with POC…?

    apparently no. Goddammit, Hollywood! Gary Ross and Debra Zane need to be smacked on the noses.

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    agreed 100%. In the end, I agree with the article from bitch.com that suggested that “casting a white Katniss was a missed opportunity” – I like this idea of “missed opportunity” because too many people have gotten caught up on the author Suzanne Collins’ endorsement of Lawrence, and interpreted that to mean that Katniss *is* (read: intended to be by the author) white. However, many readers – like you and I – see how much ambiguity Collins put in the book re: race (intentionally or unintentionally) and how much room there could have been for really thoughtful and inclusive casting.
    There was quite a heated discussion this week on YA author Malinda Lo’s blog: http://www.malindalo.com/2011/03/my-thoughts-on-the-casting-of-jennifer-lawrence-in-the-hunger-games/
    And here is a nice summary piece from racebending.com outlining the issues of contention:
    http://www.racebending.com/v4/featured/jennifer-lawrence-cast-as-katniss-in-the-hunger-games/