Marketing Tragedy: Race and The Hunger Games

By Sophie Nikitas

Jennifer Lawrence has a history of playing self-sufficient, survival-instinct-driven young women. Among several other similar roles, she gained critical acclaim, as well as an Oscar nod, for last year’s Winter’s Bone, in which she played a young woman struggling to support her family in the poverty-stricken, meth-riddled Ozarks. Considering her history, she seemed the perfect choice to play Katniss Everdeen in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. There was one catch, though: Lawrence is naturally blonde, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, while the book specifically describes Katniss as “olive-skinned” with “straight black hair” and “gray eyes”. Many therefore imagined her as, at least partly, non-white. To remedy this, she dyed her hair dark brown and got a spray tan. While her performance in the film is outstanding, many are questioning why producers shied away from casting an actress of color, in a role that was clearly open to one. Considering the reactions of some fans to the casting of black actors in the movie, the answer becomes more obvious. All over Twitter, fans of the series posted hateful messages, particularly condemning the decision to cast a black actress to play Rue, a twelve-year-old supporting protagonist who helps Katniss survive. Several admitted that they were “not as sad when she died”, while others asked why it was a “n******” or “some ugly little black girl with nappy…hair” who had one the part. “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” one girl said. These quotes make it abundantly clear that, for some fans, Rue’s racial makeup makes her impossible to root for. The ideal protagonist, rather, is fair-skinned. What many of these critics did not seem to understand (beyond the concept of human decency) was that Collins clearly described Rue as “dark-skinned” with “dark eyes”. It was this specific description which inspired producers to cast an actress of color. However, when faced with Katniss’ racial ambiguity, it seems that producers were afraid to do the same. None of the actresses even considered for her part– including Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Atonement)– were anything but white. The widespread racial criticism demonstrates a reluctance on the part of American audiences to sympathize with non-white actors. More people than we would like to admit equate only white features with innocence. While many fans have argued that Katniss’s description implies that she may be Native American, it is likely that the same people who objected to Rue’s race would not have wanted to see the movie where the heroine was not white. As the International Business Times noted, “If casting black actors in minor roles (even if they are an icon like Lenny Kravitz) is so disturbing to the public, it’s safe to assume that had Katniss been played by a black actress, it would not have been as successful a film. It would have likely grossed closer to $50 million during its opening weekend (the average opening gross of a Tyler Perry movie) [instead of the $152.5 million that it actually made].” Whoever cast Lawrence understood that she could provide both the strong, determined character, and the fair-skinned beauty that an American audience can get behind. Considering the series’ massive following, the movie was sure to make a sizable profit. What is less clear is whether it would have had the third largest opening weekend without a white lead. The series is already an unlikely success, both due to its horrifying premise, and its female-driven nature. It is possible that producers considered the casting of a woman of color as Katniss to be one too many risks in such a risky venture. Should critics of this decision be satisfied with the fact that this is the largest and most empowering female-led franchise in Hollywood history? Or should Hollywood be taken to task for its unwillingness to take the risk of casting an actress of color where it easily could have? Hollywood has the power to set new standards for society. It needs to use it. Anonymous Wed Apr 11 2012 02:52 My big thing is that people keep bringing up the olive skinned thing. Most of the people who have olive skin that I know, particularly people with ethnic roots in the Mediterranean, claim to be caucasian or caucasian of Hispanic origin. I think it’s a stretch to say that because she is “olive skinned”, Katniss should have been a person of color. Even further, Anon. from Apr 7th said it themselves: the term “olive skinned” is completely ambiguous. The casting directors could have literally chosen any person to play the part. So why is it such a big deal that a white girl got it? Then we’re justing creating an issue of racism when there is actually none at all. Anonymous Sat Apr 7 2012 01:41 Except it totally isn’t at all the same thing because she’s describe as “olive-skinned” which I would say is pretty racially ambiguous if not overtly suggesting that she is a person color. Your comment is a perfect example of false moderation in action. Also, the political motivation of wanting a character that is not at all written as white to be white so you, if you are a 15 yo racist, can sympathize with her is so much worse than the motivation to make Hollywood a modicum more inclusive by taking the risk of casting a character that is more likely than not non-white in the book as non-white in the movie. Saying the two are “the same” is almost hilariously absurd. Just because both casting decisions are politicized (like, idk, everything in the whole world) does not make them “the same.” Anonymous Fri Apr 6 2012 05:46 Wanting Katniss to be a person of color is the same as wanting Rue to be white. Neither is true to the story and both are motivated by selfish personal/political agendas.