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.