The Hunger Games’ Casting and the Problem of the White Savior

Note: This quarter, Pacific Ties will be publishing online rather than in a print issue. We decided to focus our articles around war and violence in the API community.

This article was written in response to The Hunger Games movie casting choices. Although the casting choices do not affect the API community specifically, the novels and movie comprise a narrative about violence and the way it is employed in order to oppress groups of people, and PacTies wanted to cover the implications of casting a white actor in a role that many fans envisioned for a person of color. This article is a companion piece to staff writer Carol Lee’s, who takes a brighter look at the movie itself.

Among many fans (and I’ll be honest: I’m one of them), The Hunger Games book trilogy is often lauded as an important narrative about systemized oppression and the violence inherent in those systems. However, the movie itself has come under criticism for its casting, and has revealed the problems inherent in another system where actors of color are often barred from accessing major roles in Hollywood.

When the casting calls for The Hunger Games came out, they called specifically for white actors to play the role of Katniss, who is described as having gray eyes and olive skin in the novel. “Olive skin” does not necessarily mean a person of color, but neither does it necessarily mean white. Racebending, a grassroots organization that advocates for fair media representation for people of color, repeatedly called on Lionsgate to open the casting call to more than just “Caucasian” actors, but Lionsgate did not change the description on the casting call, and on March 17th, 2011, Jennifer Lawrence was announced for the role of Katniss.

People of color have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood movies, as demonstrated in a 2006 UCLA study, and the reasons have ranged from “There are no talented actors of color” to “People won’t pay to see a person of color as the main character.” According to Sarah Mesle, a professor of English at UCLA, “When there’s big money on the line, things get conservative.” The Hunger Games trilogy has a large fan base, which means there was potential for it to generate a lot of money. Which, not so surprisingly, it did: The Hunger Games grossed $152.5 million its opening weekend, making it the most profitable nonsequel, nonsummer movie.

From the 2006 UCLA study “Hollywood’s Race/Ethnicity and Gender-Based Casting: Prospects for a Title VIIII Lawsuit”

But making money is hardly an excuse to ignore diversity in casting, and the doll test has shown that African American children often internalize negative images of themselves, which can be easy to do when they don’t see heroes like them on the big screen. As an Asian American woman growing up without many Asian Americans in the media, I also learned that the only heroes are white heroes.

The most concerning thing for me about casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, though, is the way that that changes the dynamic between Katniss and Rue. In the movies, Rue is played by Amandla Stenberg. Had Katniss been played by an actress of color, the dynamic between the two would have been unprecedented in Hollywood films: two women of color working together in an oppressive system that aims for the opposite of that. Instead, their partnership, and Katniss’ subsequent act of defiance by covering Rue’s body with flowers, takes on an uncomfortable connotation of the white savior. The “white savior” trope is a common Hollywood trope wherein a white character comes into the life of people of color, or a group of oppressed people, and helps “liberate” them. If Katniss had been played by a woman of color, then it would have been a woman of color standing against a system of oppression–and systems of oppression in real life often affect people of color the most. However, because Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, the movie simply joins the rank of other white savior films such as Gran Torino and The Help.

Amandla Stenberg as Rue from The Hunger Games. Copyright Lionsgate.

The implications of the white savior complex are more far-ranging than just movies, too. It often manifests itself in real-life events such as the recent “Stop Kony 2012” campaign to raise awareness about indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. The campaign was started by the organization Invisible Children, and spread rapidly through the internet. However, it was quickly revealed that Invisible Children’s facts were wrong: Kony has gone into hiding, and he is no longer the threat that he used to be. And the real problem with the Stop Kony 2012 campaign, as writer Teju Cole pointed out in an editorial, was that it was a symptom of what he calls the white savior industrial complex.

The effects of media are felt deeply in real life, particularly the lives of children of color who consume T.V. shows and movies that rarely, if ever, show them that they too can be heroes. The Hunger Games could have changed that, but unfortunately, it only reinforced the age-old idea that the only kind of hero out there is a white hero. As fellow PacTies member Carol Lee says in her reflection on The Hunger Games, I can only hope that the casting of future characters in the movie franchise will be more diverse.

More reading:
Carol Lee’s “The Hunger Games: American Archetype”
“But she’s a talented actress!” (a case study)

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