The racial barriers of film

With the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire this past Friday, a problem with the franchise that arose two years ago is fresh again in my mind, and I can’t help but bring it up, keeping in mind the growing success of the franchise.

The topic dominated online headlines and sparked many arguments. Although many have argued that this issue is now obsolete due to the fact that the franchise has already released the second movie and begun production on the third, I disagree.

It is an issue that is always relevant and will continue to persist unless we remedy the mindset with which we approach this subject.

Yes, I’m talking about the whitewashing of Katniss Everdeen.

Before this progresses any further, let me make it clear that I carry no ill-intent toward any of the actors in question. This is a problem solely pertaining to the approach Lionsgate took in the casting of the heroine, in that the casting call for Katniss was open only to Caucasian females.

Many have come to the defense of Lionsgate’s decision, arguing that Jennifer Lawrence got the role because of her talent, or that Katniss’s mother and sister are both blonde, which invalidates the possibility of Katniss as a woman of colour. Both points are convincing, but both are refutable.

While Lawrence is talented, and I do believe she is a great asset to the franchise, the fact remains that one of the reasons she got the role is because she is a Caucasian woman. Had she been a woman of colour, the possibility of auditioning would have been off the table for her.

For those who are not familiar with the books, it is stated, within the first few pages of the novel, that Katniss, like most citizens hailing from the area of District 12 nicknamed the Seam, is characterized by her black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes. It is why her mother, the daughter of upper-class merchants, and her sister, Prim, who both have blonde hair and blue eyes, look out of place in the Seam.

Although Katniss is racially ambiguous in the novels, is it believed by many that the lower-class citizens living in the Seam are people of colour due to the situation of District 12 in Appalachia, where many Melungeon Native Americans, who are believed to be of mixed European, sub-Saharan African and Native American ancestry, currently live.

The argument often used as a counterpoint against the aforementioned fact is that olive skin is present in Caucasians, particularly those of Southern Europe descent, but none have stopped to acknowledge the fact that black hair, olive skin, and grey eyes are physical traits that are prevalent in many ethnicities.

Thus, the issue of Prim’s hair colour becomes a scientific debate. Is it, or is it not, biologically possible for two siblings to differ so much in physicality?
Of course it is. I, myself, have seen it prevail in siblings of mixed ethnicities who look so vastly different that people assume they come from different ethnic backgrounds. It comes down to the presence of recessive genes in the children’s parents.

If there has been some intermingling of races somewhere along their family trees, recessive genes, like blonde hair and blue eyes, will pop up somewhere down the line. It’s why some people of African descent have blonde hair; it’s why some people of Asian descent have blonde hair.

There is an undeniable racial narrative in the books which is not present in the movies. Suzanne Collins herself has said that a lot of ethnic mixing has happened in the time period in which The Hunger Games takes place.

If that is the case, why is it that I can count on one hand the number of supporting characters that areportrayed by non-Caucasians? Even worse is the fact that out of the four characters, three of them are already dead at the conclusion of Catching Fire?

Gary Ross, the director of The Hunger Games, and Suzanne Collins have both said that Lawrence’s lack of black hair and olive skin can easily be remedied by makeup and hair dye, but the prevailing problem is not whether or not her physical appearance can be altered to match Katniss’s, it’s Lionsgate’s decision to blatantly exclude non-Caucasian females from consideration for the role.

Whitewashing is excruciatingly common in Hollywood so it’s no surprise that Lionsgate decided to appeal to the dominant paradigm.

While it’s obviously too late to recast, one can only hope that over time, Hollywood will take active steps to break down the barrier which will allow for equal opportunities for people of colour.

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