Whitewashing “The Hunger Games”
Published: Monday, April 9, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 13:04
With the Harry Potter series long over and the Twilight series coming to an end, a desperate Hollywood may have found its salvation in “The Hunger Games,” a new movie based on the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, “The Hunger Games” has already garnered favorable reviews from critics and scored the best opening day ever for a non-sequel, pulling in over 68 million dollars when it premiered Friday, March 23 and a total of $155 million for the weekend. Many reviews noted that Lawrence’s superb acting helped distinguish the film from the trove of young-adult targeted dystopian narratives. Yet before the cameras were even rolling, her casting stirred up controversy among fans and non-fans alike.
“The Hunger Games” takes place in the near future where 12 Districts, as punishment for a century-old rebellion, must each choose one male and one female adolescent to participate in the Hunger Games, a contest in which only one of the 24 participants will make it out with his or her life. The series narrator, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), is a 16-year-old girl who volunteers after her sister is chosen. Early in the novel, Collins describes Katniss as having dark hair and olive skin. Considering all events take place in a future North America, many readers speculated that Everdeen was multiracial. Though Collins describes Katniss’ mother and sister as having light hair and blue eyes, this does not necessarily bar Katniss from these speculations. Most characters from The Seam, the region where Katniss lives, share her olive skin and dark features. Her mother and sister are anomalies, living in an area where whiteness is not the default—a rarity in most modern media.
Yet despite this, casting calls for the role of Katniss courted exclusively white actresses, effectively barring all non-white and multiracial actresses who also fit her physical description. When light-skinned, blond-haired Lawrence joined the cast, many were upset.
This would not be the first time Hollywood has cast a white actor in a potential non-white role. In fact, many past incidents have been more egregious. Jake Gyllenhaal was cast to play a Persian man just two years ago in “The Prince of Persia” (2010), and white actors were cast to play almost all of the roles in “The Last Airbender” (2010), a movie based on a Nickelodeon cartoon that featured literally no white characters. Most recently, the casting call for the upcoming movie “Akira,” based on the Japanese anime, asked for only white actors to play the leading characters Tetsuo and Kaneda.
Some may cite Idris Elba’s casting as the traditionally white norse god Heimdallr in last year’s Thor as an example of the opposite. However, the casting of a black actor in a traditionally white secondary role is not the same as whitewashing the lead roles of people of color in modern media. Minorities and people of color have disproportionately fewer opportunities to play characters in film, and even fewer opportunities for leading roles when compared to white actors. Every time a non-white character is played by a white actor, that is one less opportunity for underrepresented actors. This phenomenon also contributes to the lack of minority visibility in the media.
In addition, “The Hunger Games” tag on Twitter reveals racism within the fandom itself. Many moviegoers expressed distaste that Rue, a character with dark brown skin and dark hair whom Collins herself described as African American, was played by a black actress. There is an entire tumblr (http://hungergamestweets.tumblr.com/) dedicated to the rampant issue. Many have tweeted on this tumblr, claiming that her death was less sad now that she wasn’t the blond girl they imagined, regardless of the book’s description.
Hollywood succumbs to whitewashing because of a prevailing racist idea that mainstream America is somehow unable to relate to people of color—a terrifying self-fulfilling prophecy that carries over into reality and contributes to ethnic discrimination off the screen. Lawrence is a fantastic actor who deserves the praise that she receives, but her casting perpetuates a racist trend in Hollywood that needs to be recognized and addressed.