Imagining Race: The Hunger Games

Straight black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes.

Suzanne Collins’ description of her protagonist – brief, almost in passing – has ignited debate across the Internet, and surely beyond, about race and Hollywood. It would be nearly impossible to miss the discussions, even if you hadn’t read the books.

Admittedly, I am late to the game. I finished The Hunger Games only two days ago, after finally cracking and giving in to the pestering of my roommate to read! it! This isn’t a book review, so suffice to say I found it to be compelling and incredibly “readable” (I finished in less than a day), but not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. Not that this matters in Hollywood. Transformers 17 comes out this summer, right?

It was inevitable that a trilogy as successful as Suzanne Collins’ would have a big-screen adaptation. But the casting for the movie was up for debate. Would they cast entirely unknowns, like Harry Potter did back in 2000? Or would they cherry=pick the most wide-eyed starlets from the Disney cadre? Most importantly, though, was the question of the actors’ race.

Straight black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes.

With this description, Suzanne Collins had created an opportunity for a huge blockbuster hit to have a woman of colour as star. Though admittedly vague, the description can and does include a wide variety of non-white women, the world over. And this matters. Because how often do we find Hollywood movies starring (and I mean starring, not just featuring) women of colour? Racialicious posted an excellent article by Shannon Riffe to this end.

So when Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the role of Katniss, people were understandably upset.

Straight black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes. (Or not?)

I have no doubt that Jennifer Lawrence will do an excellent job in the role. Her work in Winter’s Bone (the best American movie of 2010, in my humble opinion) was wonderful. But that really isn’t the point, is it? Sure, the film’s producers want the best actress they can get. But the idea that they couldn’t find a capable actress of colour? That is both ridiculous and ignorant.

They had an opportunity with this casting, to address the lack of colour in Hollywood and representations of race within the book itself. It certainly doesn’t give me much hope that they will address these issues in any of the films. As MizJenkins pointed out yesterday, early scenes from the second book Catching Fire in particular call for openness, discussion, and “going there.” Given their decision to cast not only Katniss, but also Peeta and Gale (who is also specifically described as having straight black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes) with white actors, I’m not holding out much hope. But what’s more, this is not just a wasted opportunity to address issues in Hollywood, but also a wasted opportunity to address much deeper issues.

Reading and watching a film require vastly different models of reception. Being a film spectator is a much more passive act. There are no choices to make, no scenarios to visualize; both actions which are required from reading. Reading The Hunger Games invites us to imagine the people, places, and events in our own way. To create our own cast.

Straight black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes.

When I first read this description of Katniss, I my mind immediately jumped to one of my closest friends. She has olive skin, grey-brown eyes, and a jealousy-inducing head of long, straight dark hair. Why did my mind jump to her? Because she is familiar.

Familiarity. Plenty of people have argued online that “olive skin” does not discount someone being white. That dying Jennifer Lawrence’s hair and giving her a tan is enough to fit the description. And I would bet that 99.9% of these people are white. Because they are looking to defend the familiar. Because when they read, they imagined Katniss like them. Just as I imagined Gale and Peeta as white. Because this is familiar to me.

The film adaptation of The Hunger Games was an opportunity to challenge the status quo, on screen and on the page. To kick people like me in the ass and confront the automatic assumption of whiteness. To challenge familiarity. To illuminate the privilege of always seeing familiar representations of whiteness on screen. But instead, these opportunities were wasted.

Straight blond hair, white skin, blue eyes.

filmschooled kindly shares her insightful, first hand knowledge of film-school fuckery from her tumblr, where you can read Imagining Race: The Hunger Games in its original context.

15 thoughts on “Imagining Race: The Hunger Games”

  1. I am an avid movie goer and it always amazes me that Hollywood can find new aspiring actors (Introducing blah, blah, blah) who are not of color. It is not at all uncommon to watch a movie where the entire cast, including hundreds of extras, are all white.

    I have to think it’s deliberate.

    I am actually writing an online novel as we speak, and one of the most heated debates we had is when one member demanded that I include a character in the story who was white, like her. When I pointed out that I deliberately have never said what race my leading lady was (because it’s not important to the story) she went on to argue that curly hair, being able to dance and having exotic eyes are not the characteristics of a white woman.

    Thank God there were lots of commentators who corrected her, but she still insisted she wanted to read about a woman who looked like her.

    I guess Hollywood wants to see people on the big screen who look like *them*, regardless of what the script/book calls for.

    Which is curious to me as well, because when I made the mistake of wondering out loud on HBO’s forum, as to why Rome did not have any people of color in its cast, I was told that I was ignorant, because the actors were all chosen because they look like the people of that region.

    I was subjected to a long description of the racial make up of people of Northern Africa and the Middle East, and it was explained to me with much annoyance why these people were not at all Black or people of color.

    I couldn’t understand what they were saying at all. A good actor can play ANY role, regardless of color, right? A good actor can make an audience believe s/he IS the person she is playing. How many times have we seen actors completely transform themselves and BECOME the person that they are portraying. That’s the beauty of acting.

    Soooooo Jennifer Lawrence can definitely play Katniss. But one has to wonder what you asked in your piece:

    But the idea that they couldn’t find a capable actress of colour? That is both ridiculous and ignorant.

    It really seems like they can’t, right? Or don’t want to. Why do we never see Angela Bassett challenged to play a role that is completely alien to who she really is? Denzil Washington played Caesar on Broadway.

    And you know, it’s a shame that when I tried to come up with a name of a qualtiy Black actor those two popped up and then I had to stop to think of more. There are that few.

    The film adaptation of The Hunger Games was an opportunity to challenge the status quo, on screen and on the page. To kick people like me in the ass and confront the automatic assumption of whiteness. To challenge familiarity. To illuminate the privilege of always seeing familiar representations of whiteness on screen. But instead, these opportunities were wasted.

    Thank you for writing this piece. I really think Hollywood doesn’t give one damn about race relations, and I believe *they* are holding on fast to their privileged status and promoting it for all those, who share it, to see and appreciate.

    1. Sabine, yeah! re: Rome, that completely caught my attention too! Are those commenters completely stupid? The Roman empire was responsible for the displacement of people of all colors and lands of origin to the far reaches of the empire. If even the Bible has stories of people of African origin in the Palestinian holding of the Roman Empire, you’d think effing HBO could manage to find a black person or two to play a character without worrying about “regional accuracy.” My ass.

      1. Hey Ruby! Amen!!! These commentators, some of them, were SCHOLARS — they were just racist, IMO. They kept going on and on about the racial ethnicity of Cleopatra, for instance, and then at the end tried to tell me it doesn’t matter.

        After you argued your point for three days. Uh, I think it matters very much.

        you’d think effing HBO could manage to find a black person or two to play a character without worrying about “regional accuracy

        .”

        The Gladiator did. (- _________-)

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. It’s very problematic.

    My only minor quibble would be that while GALE is described as having olive skin, black hair, and grey eyes like Katniss, PEETA was supposed to be pale and blonde. He was of the merchant class and looked it, which I think highlights even more why it’s so disappointing that the adaptation isn’t taking the carefully painted social cues in the book more seriously.

    1. Absolutely! The second book in particular has major themes of slavery – the hundreds of people working the fields in District 11, Gale being whipped at a post in the town square (!) – but they are never actually addressed directly. And I fear that given the book’s target audience is fairly young, these issues might not register at all.

      1. I find it somewhat problematic that despite pretty clear depictions of physical characteristics that include PoC in almost every district, the only ones that got CAST as PoC (that I’ve seen anyway) are the ones from “slave-like” and agrarian District 11.

        1. I totally agree – when they released the names of the actors that are going to be playing Rue and Thresh it was as if they were saying “Look! Look! We ARE casting PoC!” while totally ignoring the implications of having them come exclusively from District 11.

  3. What sticks out to me is that- regardless of how you interpret the description of Katniss, it is supposed to be a contrast to the rest of her family, “with their light hair and blue eyes” (page 8, thank you very much.) which suggests that, at the least, Katniss should be someone without light hair and blue eyes.
    Yeah, yeah, hair dye, contacts, tanning cream, whatever. Like there aren’t any non-blonde, non-blue eyed, fantastic actresses out there.

  4. I completely agree. Its interesting though that you say that the people who say there is a varying degree to the term “olive” are white. Admittedly I am white. For me, when Katniss is comparing her darker features to the lighter features of her mom and sister it reminded me of myself and my family (but in opposite). My paternal side of the family is all olive skin, dark hair and dark eyes. I stick out like a sore thumb with my blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin. I’m regularly teased by them for being so light. While I agree that this would have been an awesome opportunity to give a great actress of the non-white variety a chance to be in a huge movie and represent a different skin tone, I was as up in arms as everyone else over the casting. It will be interesting to see where they take it. Who knows they might not even use those physical characteristics they way the book did- which would be a shame.

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