Racism, Hollywood, and The Hunger Games

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…

Producer Nina Jacobson

Producer Alli Shearmur

Director Gary Ross

Casting Director Debra Zane

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?

Lionsgate Entertainment

2700 Colorado Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404

20 thoughts on “Racism, Hollywood, and The Hunger Games

  1. OH MY GODS AND GODDESSES, I could not agree with this article anymore. Hollywood NEEDS to see this article. And I really mean it. I really am also going to mail that letter!!! It is quite repulsive that Hollywood does that.
    To tell the truth I have never noticed it before but after looking at the staff members I was like, “What the Hell.” Seriously…… Its like they went out of their ways to GET caucasian people and personally I think thats bull****. Yeah, at least they got some black people but could this just be because of the president? Oh I wonder. Since the United States has gotten the first black president suddenly they are everywhere. Before they were just like us Asians, Latinos, Mexicans, and any other race that I have not mentioned!!!
    Things like this is what going to bring America down. America is supposed to be a place where everyone is equal with the f**king exception of Hollywood!!! Think for all those people with brains!!!! Do you see many Asians that are famous for acting a great and fantastic movie like oh I don’t know, Jhonny Depp? (As hot as he is) And do you see as many Latino/Mexican Singers as White? And don’t you dare say yes because the answer is NO!
    Now get out your stamps, envelopes, and pen. Or maybe a pencil…. But you know what to do! And that is write!!!! And then mail does damn letters!!!! Im hoping that at least the news get this.
    XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO – POG (Pissed of girl) Smilie face.

  2. this has gotten to a point where I can’t even go to the movies or watch tv anymore. The institutionalized racism that is being thrown in our face is disgusting and whats more is, IT IS A WELL KNOWN FACT THAT HOLLYWOOD WHITE WASHES EVERYTHING. IF this is a known fact why does it still happen? Because people still go to these movies, THERE NEEDS TO BE A BOYCOTT! IF these people are still getting paid, they wont have any reason to change. I SAY A BOYCOTT NEEDS TO BE PUT TOGETHER AND IMPLEMENTED!

  3. I agree 100%! At first I was curious about it, then I despise it, because of the issue that African-American are in the Agriculture District in the book and the movie! What the fuck is that? Can they be merchants, or technoblobs other than agriculturists? We need role models, and obviously the characters in the Hunger Games or any teen novel aren’t minorities, unless like you said in your article are social issues, like for example the novel and movie “Precious”. And yes, minorities including African-American aren’t selleable based on “Hollywood” standards? Who the fuck they think they are, gods, psychics? No wonder Women and Men of color or any minority are suffering for low self-esteem. Because of this belief that if they’re white they can do everything, but if they’re minority or black, they’re lazy, criminals and dumb. I won’t buy or support any movie or book that doesn’t include a black woman as the main character. Maybe I would die without reading a book like that. I’m tired of Barbie look a like dolls!

    • Good catch! I totally knew that – I have no idea where my brain pulled the name “Gail” from when I was writing this :) Fixed now though!

  4. I didn’t read the books but it seems like this is a sort of dystopian future, maybe by putting blacks in the ag district, she was trying to say that the racism of today and yesterday still lasts well into tomorrow?

    • I suspect that was the point that she was trying to make – by alluding to real, historic American oppression Suzanne Collins grounds the book’s message in our reality (at least a little bit). I do find it offensive that the ONLY black tributes were the ones from this particular district, but that’s not on Suzanne so much as its on the filmmakers. On one hand, they fought back (a little) against Hollywood’s tendency to cast any “unspecified” character with a white actor, by casting Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. Still, they could’ve done my better in my opinion – 24 tributes and 22 of them are white? In a country that is supposed to be future-America? Aside from being fairly discriminatory, its just not realistic!

  5. “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.”

    Will Smith in I Am Legend (which was particularly screwy, because part of point of the book was having a blond-haired Teutonic type trying to wipe out a new master race). Nevertheless, I agree with the thrust of your argument.

  6. While this article does a great job of exposing the subtle racism of the film, I would like to point out some of the overt racism (I apologize for not researching the names of the characters). Here goes:
    1.) The first image we see of a black character is when they are practicing with weapons for the first time. The black male character is shown chucking a spear…
    2.) shortly thereafter, a knife is stolen from one of the contestants. It is revealed that the black girl stole it.
    3.) when offered something resembling chicken, the black girl tries to refuse, but is ultimately unable to resist.
    4.) The only district to riot during the games is district 11, where the two black characters are from. The riot is started by a black man. When the government suppresses the riot, they do so with fire hoses.

    That’s all I noticed the first time around. I tried to say that it was pretty racist that when the black male character murdered a white girl (to save Katniss) he got out of there racistly fast, but my girlfriend hit me and said that was going too far. Also, Onigiri, good catch with the whole agricultural district thing, I was too excited about the other things going on in that scene (riot started by black man, water hose suppression) to notice that they were cast as farmers.

    (Note: please don’t think of me as a terribly offensive person for this comment. I’m sure that this “evidence” is purely coincidental and I’ve been informed that most of it didn’t occur in the books.)

    • I think this is a great example of how whitewashing can really mess up a movie. The points that you note almost all happen similarly in the books (minus the riot thing. Riots happened in the novel world, during the later books in the series, but they spread throughout the districts. They also left out District 11 coming together to send Katniss a loaf of bread as thanks for what she did for Rue – a big deal since sending a gift is expensive in the games, and everyone in district 11/12 pretty much is poor.)

      The real issue is that there are ONLY two black characters. If some of the other Tributes, even the background ones who play little bearing on the story as a whole, had also been people of color it is likely that these incidents would have blended into the story instead of standing out as blatant racist stereotypes. For instance, if we had a black tribute who was starting a fire when we first saw him, then the spear chucking wouldn’t have been a big deal because it wouldn’t have been the ONLY example of a black male in this movie. However, with Thresh as the only black male Tribute, his strength and and aggression supports a stereotype about black men without any counterpoint to balance him out.

      Basically: white washing sucks.

  7. If you’d read the book, Rue was unable to refuse the food because in her district food is tightly controlled… it was simple hunger.

    • Like I said, I know it’s all coincidental. And I’m not basing anything off the book, because I’m not terribly interested in reading the series. What I’m saying is that, based on the movie only, it’s pretty racist…

  8. Also, just to clear up a minor error in this article about a minority NEVER getting a part where the character from the source material is white. I’ll agree that this isn’t common, but it HAS happened. Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend was white in the source material. Also, Morgan Freeman plays God in Bruce Almighty (I’m not trying to be a smartass here, but in the Bible, God is white.) I’m sure there are more examples, and I’m sure it happens both ways in Hollywood.

    I think this whole issue is being over-dramatized. You say yourself that the book is vague in describing Katniss’ race, only that she is olive-skinned and dark haired. This could describe a white person or a minority, but neither group should be offended by the casting decision either way. There may not be quite as many minority actors/actresses out there, but they’re by no means non-existent. Out of the 25 top grossing actors of all time, there are four African Americans (and all of them are in the top 10.)

    • I don’t think the bible ever specifies God’s race (I mean, obviously it doesn’t because God is not considered human, he wouldn’t HAVE a race)… but I do get what you’re saying. It happens both ways from time to time, but white actors definitley have the advantage when it comes to casting. This movie is a good example of that: when Lenny Kravitz was cast into the role of Cinna, a character whose race was never specified, fans FREAKED OUT all over the internet – going on and on about how they just always pictured Cinna as white. America sees white as the “default” race, and when race is not specified most people will default and picture a white person. This happens, to a degree, because white people are depicted much more often in the media, in a wide variety of roles. I’m not saying everyone freaking out is an awful person, but I wish they had sat down and thought more about *why* they’d always pictured Cinna as white and what that says about their social conditioning – instead of just getting mad at the director’s “mistake.”

      It may happen both ways but it definitley happens more often in favor of *white* actors.

      The article explicitly says that I am not offended by the decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence, I am offended by the casting call itself specifying that only Caucasian actresses could audition. If they had kept it open to any actress who could be described as “olive skinned” with dark hair (or hair that could be dyed, like they did for Lawrence) then I’d have no issue, but to only be willing to LOOK at caucasian actresses for a part that isn’t even explicitly described as caucasian is racist.

      Additionally, this whole issue is part of the reason *why* there aren’t as many people of color making it big in Hollywood: when there are so few solid roles being offered to people of color it is MUCH harder for them to break into the industry, and that sucks. This is just *one* example, yes, but it is indicative of a larger system that still has a LOT of implicit and explicit racism to work through.

  9. You’re an absolute idiot. I sincerely hope that any person that reads this sees this for what it is…you’re talking about blah blah blah RACE, when the message behind the story was about warfare, was about adolescent issues brought in by a warfare type sitch under the oppression of an entirely different world, children and the possibility of the human perspective becoming so distorted after a war and the effects…and what you see is race??? Did you miss the entire message?

    Olive skin does not and has never indicated a person of Hispanic, black or non white ethnicity, It’s technical definition is It may often be skin type 3 and 4 on the Fitzpatrick scale. However, this scale measures depth of skin color and reaction to UV rays, not hue of skin color. Depth of skin color refers to where it falls on a tints and shades or light/dark scale, and hue is the base of the color (i.e. red, yellow, blue). Olive skin is when skin has a mostly yellow hue with touches of blue, essentially producing a green-yellow hue to the skin. Therefore, fair skin can have an olive hue, and some olive-skinned people may burn easily in the sun if they are also fair.

    The person, Austin, above has obviously not even READ the book, who is saying the first time you even see a person of race, obviously did not at all pay attention to the movie…There were a myriad of races within district 12. The first time you meet other contestants IN THE BOOK, is when they are thrown together. The movie could not have followed the book exactly or you’d have been sitting through a 5 hour movie, so let’s follow logic please. The little black girl, her name was Rue, which you should remember since she was an integral part of the movie AND book, but instead you choose to focus on race. Her character was small, lithe and CLEVER, they were in fact trying to portray her as clever. Not a thief and omg you speak of racism, yet you immediately jump to that negative conclusion. Rue could not refuse the meal, which was a bird by the way, because she was starving. Read the book.

    And the most ignorant statement that seriously pisses me off the most :4.) The only district to riot during the games is district 11, where the two black characters are from. The riot is started by a black man. When the government suppresses the riot, they do so with fire hoses.
    If you had read the 2nd and 3rd books you would notice that, district 11 is the first stop on their victory tour. This is where a riot breaks out in front of them and that district is said to have been prodominantly a black nation, and yes they are agriculture, not just farmers. EACH DISTRICT WAS SEGREGATED by class and by their jobs, of what they could provide for the capitol….In movie land, referencing to a sequel is accepted which is what they were doing, Riots do break out in districts 4, 8, maybe 3 but definitely 11 because of the treatment of their children.

    I am disgusted that you are trying this movie, over a book that the author was a part of and had she not liked the people being casted for the rolls had every opportunity to say so. I am disgusted that you have debased the entire message of a story down to a race thing. Find something else to harp about.

  10. “How often have we seen a person of color cast to play a character explicitly described as white in the source material?”

    The Shawshank Redemption’s Red is a small Irish man in the book. In the movie he is played by Morgan Freeman.

  11. Pingback: A Whitewashed Hunger Games : Ms. Magazine Blog

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