Fans of The Hunger Games: Enthusiastic Readers or Bigoted Fandom?

6 years ago

Based on a wildly popular young-adult science fiction book trilogy, The Hunger Games is one of the most anticipated movies hitting theaters in 2012. But months before the movie's premiere, the casting of the film is stirring one of 2011's hottest debates about race in Hollywood. The debate was stoked up again recently, as The Hunger Games trailers and posters were released to the public.

Image Credit: Lions Gate Films

Actress Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone; The Poker House) plays Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the forced, fight-to-the-death competition that is a commonplace in the post-apocalyptic society setting.

Just like the vampire romance book-turned-film series Twilight, the fandom is rabid. Many fans have taken an emotional interest in the characters, so when the film posters were released earlier this month, some people were outraged when the characters they had imagined in their minds did not look the same as the actors who will portray them in the film. The casting of secondary characters Rue and Cinna, who will be portrayed by Black actors Amandla Stenberg and Lenny Kravitz, was met with outrage. The below comments were posted on The Hunger Games' Facebook page. On Rue:

“I imagined her to be a little girl and def. not ethnic. This girl is beautiful though :)”

(Emphasis mine)

What the hell does that mean? Because she is Black, she is not female? "Ethnic" people are usually not attractive? And about Cinna:

“One Word: BLEH”

“Cinna is my favorite character and it’s the only casting choice I really don’t like. It’s not only because he doesn’t look like Cinna, it’s because I don’t think he will be able to re-enact Cinna’s calm temper and quiet personality. I really hope I’m wrong about this, he just can’t ruin this for me:<”

So ... a Black man cannot play a character not because of his skin color, but because inherently, he cannot have a "calm temper and quiet personality?" Okay, get a life, you clueless bigot.

But despite the really offensive (and quite frankly, really troublesome) comments, the most telling issue about these comments is how people have envisioned these characters, not because of how they were described in the book but because of how they see the world.

A White world. A White world in which everyone is yes, white, but to them a perfect world where everyone has the same assumed "temperament," values and perfect looks. On the website Nerdgasm Noire Network, Roxie Moxie posts the descriptions of the characters from the book from the official Wiki page. About Rue:

"And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor." -- Katniss Everdeen, while watching Rue’s reaping. (A reaping is the event in which children as young as 12 are chosen to eventually participate in The Hunger Games.) {The Hunger Games Wiki}

On Cinna:

Most people who live in the Capitol follow very absurd fashion trends. This is not the case for Cinna. The first time he is seen in the book, he is described as wearing a simple black shirt with matching pants. His one strange fashion choice is gold eyeliner, which brings out the gold flecks in his green eyes and which Katniss describes as attractive. Other than that, Cinna looks very normal, with close-cropped natural dark brown hair and slightly dark skin. {The Hunger Games Wiki}

So what's the issue, unless people thought that “brown skin” meant a White person with a tan? This could be the case (even though a stretch), but still doesn’t quite explain the above commenter’s thinking that a Black actor playing the role will not have the intellectual capacity to portray the character in the way in which they see fit.

And to post this shit on a public forum also means that the commenters felt that -- or perhaps didn’t care, but I doubt that -- that the only people who are passionate about the books and upcoming movie must also be White, too. It’s amazing how one’s limited sense of the world, the way these people believe life should be, is projected through to others as an absolute.

Even the casting of the heroine, Katniss, stirred up allegations of white-washing. The book contained only a brief physical description of the main character, about which Movieline comments:

The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent.

However, the casting call requested that only White actresses audition. And that led to Lawrence getting the role, dying her hair and getting a tan. Commenters on Racialicious felt that while yes, the original description was "ethnically vague," the casting call should have at least been open to actors of color.

The controversy over “whitewashing” original ethnic characters is nothing new. When actor Ben Kingsley portrayed Ghandi, those who did not know that Kingsley was actually part Indian (and English) wondered why an Indian actor was not cast as national hero. Angelina Jolie was cast to play Marianne Pearl (who is biracial), donning a curly wig and a tan for a biopic in 2006; I wrote about the controversy for BlogHer. There was also some recent ire about actor / director Kenneth Brannagh’s decision to cast Black British actor Idris Elba to play Thor. The Council of Conservative Citizens tried to create a boycott of the film, horrified that a “Nordic God” was going to be played by a “Hip-Hop” DJ.

So what does this say about the Hollywood machine? There have been countless articles and complaints about the lack of diversity in movie roles. There have also been complaints that the roles made available to actors of color (some that have been written by Black writers / directors) are stereotypical ones, at best, and downright offensive at worst. However, mainstream movies are a business, and while production companies have always taken risks on stories that border on the subversive (The Beaver) they rarely take risks on the casting. Why? People do not like it.

So who is at fault? The producers could not have gotten away with casting White actors for the role of Rue and Cinna because of their descriptions on the book. But it is also a very acceptable decision because they are secondary characters. Ultimately, Hollywood has to adhere to what the public wants, as the public will be paying to watch the film and buy the accompanying merchandise.

We need to look at how our perceptions about the world affect what entertainment productions are given the green light. Many of us publicly claim to loathe reality TV, but someone is watching it. Our society is incredibly diverse, in terms of race, religion and sexuality; while it is common sense to show that diversity on the big screen, there will always be people who can’t handle the truth.


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

Writer: Hellbound:

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