After seeing “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” at a press screening last week, I text a friend of mine that while I’m not personally a huge fan of the franchise, Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) was born to play Katniss, the heroine at the center of the dystopian action film. She’s the best thing about the series, I wrote.
I immediately noticed after sending my text that my iPhone had autocorrected the name “Katniss” to the word “Latinas.” I giggled a bit to myself about the correction before thinking about the actual character. Since I had not read any of the books, I immediately called my wife and asked her if there was anything in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy that defined Katinss’ ethnicity.
“No,” she said. “But a lot of fans were angry when they cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role because Katniss is described as having an ‘olive’ skin tone, dark hair and grey eyes.”
“Olive skin tone?” I thought. Was Katniss actually written by Collins to be a non-white character or ambiguous in race? Was she biracial? Native American? Indian? Why couldn’t Katniss actually be Latina?
Upon doing more research on Katniss’ heritage, I realized the topic of conversation had already been brought up as early as the actual casting call for the first movie, which hit theaters in March 2012. People were displeased with the fact that Lionsgate, the production company behind the film, ignored Collins’ original description of Katniss and put out a cast call for young women who could be described as “Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone underfed but strong, and naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.” From the studio’s perspective, Katniss was definitely, 100 percent white.
This is not to take anything away from Lawrence in the role. Like I said before, she exudes powerful, independent female characteristics that are sorely needed for girls today who are inundated with the Disney princess culture and the idea that one can’t find true happiness unless it’s with Prince Charming (there are exceptions, like Mulan, of course). Lawrence as Katniss is a great role model and, based on her amazing breakout role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” if I was a casting director, I would’ve probably cast her, too.
Still, by the movie studio not even considering that the role of Katniss could possibly go to an actress who is not Caucasian is hard to swallow and underlines may of the problems in Hollywood today. The whitewashing of roles like this might not mean much to studios and producers, especially when the film makes $161 million at the box office opening weekend, but it should. If anything, the studio lost an opportunity to do something groundbreaking by making a casting choice that wasn’t so obvious. According to a Nielsen Co. study reported by the Wall Street Journal, “The average Hispanic moviegoer went to nearly 10 films in 2012, compared with just over six for whites, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans.” That’s quite a large audience to ignore. No, the Latino community wasn’t asking the studio to blindly go in and make an uninformed decision by tossing Selena Gomez into the role, but at least they could’ve sat down and thought about the possibility of casting a non-white actress a bit more (or at least allow a few to audition!) before disregarding the idea entirely.
Forget Katniss. Ninety-five percent of the “Hunger Games” cast is white. For a story set in the future, a future that is proving in real life to be getting less and less white, it’s highly unlikely the 12 districts featured in the franchise would have so few people of color. I mean, the characters in “The Hunger Games,” who are all ruled by a totalitarian government, are practically starving. Wouldn’t it have been a smart move to write at least one brown character into the script who could teach everyone how to roll tortillas de maíz?