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