Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Earlier this week, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth were cast as Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne in Lionsgate and Colorforce’s production of The Hunger Games.
As a result, the three principal actors in Ross’s The Hunger Games film trilogy will all be white.
In an April 7th, 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, The Hunger Games film adaptation director Gary Ross and the novel’s author, Suzanne Collins answered questions about the lead cast of The Hunger Games. Collins and Ross also confirmed that Rue, a supporting character and ally of Katniss in the first novel, will be played by an African American actor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Some readers have expressed real frustration that white actors were cast in the roles of Katniss and Gale, who they felt were clearly described as biracial in the book. Do you understand or share any of that dismay Suzanne?
COLLINS: They were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup.
In the interview, Collins states that in her post-apocalyptic world of Panem, “a lot of ethnic mixing” has occurred, but also that Katniss and Gale are not biracial. She does not attempt to answer Entertainment Weekly’s question about whether or not she understands “fan dismay” about the casting.
We hope that Collins understands that fans are upset not because of their personally-held image of the characters, but because the casting call and process reflected the continued barriers actors of color and communities of color face in accessing representation in film. White actors are not prevented from portraying roles like Katniss and Gale, but non-white and multiethnic actors faced barriers from accessing the same opportunities.
Even though the novel’s descriptions of Gale and Katniss did not entirely preclude the casting of white actors, our organization and several media outlets had previously pointed out that “olive skin” and “straight black hair” are physical traits that could be possessed by someone of any ethnicity.
While white actors are cast to play lead white characters and lead characters of color (The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia), actors of color continue to face systemic discrimination in Hollywood. Many fans who contacted us were confused as to why the casting breakdown specifically targeted only white actors. As Paul Constant of The Stranger pointed out, “to specifically request Caucasians seems to reject a whole bunch of options before they’ve even been considered.”
COLLINS: But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.
ROSS: Thresh and Rue.
COLLINS: They’re African-American.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So will those roles go to black actors?
ROSS: Thresh and Rue will be African-American. It’s a multi-racial culture and the film will reflect that. But I think Suzanne didn’t see a particular ethnicity to Gale and Katniss when she wrote it, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. She was very specific about the qualities that these characters have and who they are as people. Having seen Josh and Liam and Jen perform these roles, that’s really the most important thing. They’re very much the characters to us.
It is reassuring to hear that two of the supporting characters in The Hunger Games will be portrayed by actors of color, after hearing some speculation–also from Entertainment Weekly–questioning whether or not they needed to be.
We’re less reassured by Ross’s assertion that “Suzanne didn’t see a particular ethnicity to Gale and Katniss when she wrote it.” This statement does not necessarily explain or justify why only one particular ethnicity was cast–or why only white actors were recruited in the audition breakdown. White ethnicity is often treated as a neutral, invisible, and universal cultural norm, and Ross’s argument masks concerns about systemic discrimination in Hollywood.
If Collins did not envision Katniss and Gale as any ethnicity in particular, the production shouldn’t have restricted the auditions to Caucasian actors in the casting breakdown. This is where our frustration lies.
Because the three lead protagonists of The Hunger Games have been cast with white actors, the production may unintentionally present an unrealistic and stereotypical vision of a “multi-racial” future where the only characters who make significant decisions and have compelling stories are white. People of color and people of mixed ethnicity should be present and play important roles in movie depictions of a future America.
We do not have a problem with the specific actors who were cast; the writer is clearly happy with them. We do feel that it was wrong for the production to restrict open auditions to Caucasian actors, and hope that the remaining roles in The Hunger Games and future films from Lionsgate and Colorforce allow for actors of color to audition in cases where the character could by portrayed by someone of any ethnicity.