Racism is something we’re all aware; we hear about it constantly in society, in football and in our everyday lives, but what about in film?
It’s likely that you would have heard stories about directors, writers and producers typecasting characters and it’s not uncommon to see particular actors play the same racial stereotype all of the time. What is a rarity, however, is an audience’s reaction when they don’t agree with the race of a character cast in a certain role.
The Hunger Games has done extremely well since its release last March, making over $350M worldwide and clinging on to the top of the box office for four whole weeks. But not everybody had good things to say about it.
Adapted from a series of novels written by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy of films that follows heroine Katniss Everdeen, played on-screen by Jennifer Lawrence, as a resident of a dystopian society named Panem where, each year, twenty-four tributes are forced to compete in a fight-to-the-death televised game.
After the film’s release, a huge controversy arose when a number of tweeters began to express their opinions about the casting of a black actress for the role of little, innocent Rue from District 11, who was portrayed on-screen by half-African-American half-Danish thirteen-year-old Amandla Stenberg.
Tweets included comments like “I was pumped about The Hunger Games. Until I learnt that a black girl was playing Rue”, and “Since when has Rue been a n*****?”. Whilst many of these users then deleted their tweets and some of them even their accounts entirely, one website, The Tumblr blog Hunger Games Tweets, started to publish print-screened images of these shocking and offensive tweets as they began to go viral.
The surprising thing is that author Suzanne Collins detailed in The Hunger Games novel that Rue “has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin.” Collins may not have specifically said that Rue was black, but she was undeniably describing a character that was most certainly not white.
The problem here is that these so-called fans of The Hunger Games clearly didn’t spend enough time reading the book properly, as most of the tweeted comments came from viewers who had apparently read the book beforehand.
Nonetheless, ‘fans’ were upset that they had pictured a white, blonde girl in Rue’s role, and that because she was played by a black actress on-screen, her death wasn’t as sad. I, for one, didn’t know this kind of prejudice still occurred. I’m not being ignorant – of course I know that racism is still a big issue – but does the casting of a black actress instead of a white, blonde one really desensitize the death of a character?
Despite Collins stating that Rue was dark-skinned, should it really have mattered whether or not she hadn’t written it ink? Casting director David Rubin comments that, “It’s impossible to be slavish to the way characters are described in a novel because those characters exist in the readers’ mind in a purely subjective way.”
However, the portrayal of Rue on-screen was true to the source material. But surely we should be more concerned with the quality of their performances rather than their appearance?
David Sztypuljak, Co-founder and Editor of HeyUGuys, comments that, “Race shouldn’t matter. It’s about whoever is best to fulfil the role.” But these tweets expose a persistent prejudice in pop culture, which leads us to another example involving Community actor Donald Glover, who expressed his desires to be cast as the lead in the latest Amazing Spider-Man film back in 2010.
Donald tweeted: “Some people are mistaken. I don’t want to just be given the role. I want to be able to audition. I truly love Spider-Man”, and soon enough #donald4spiderman was one of the Top 10 trends on Twitter.
It’s the fact that Donald wasn’t even allowed the opportunity to audition for the role which is the shocking part. Spider-Man may be white in Marvel’s comic books, but does his skin colour really define his character?
Andy Shaw, News Editor at Lost In The Multiplex, says that, “There is absolutely no reason an actor of one race could not play a character already established as another race, providing the context makes sense.”
“If the ethnicity or cultural background of the character is a defining part of that character, such as Shaft or Zorro, changing their ethnicity would change the character. That is when it becomes an issue,” he adds.
There is another, more disheartening reason though, and that is as Jon Lyus, Co-founder and Content Director at HeyUGuys, puts it: “There’s an unspoken subtext that White actors will better sell a movie in America.”
Harry M. Benshoff, an associate professor of radio, TV and film at the University of North Texas who co-wrote America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, agrees. “Put Donald Glover as Spider-Man, [and the movie] will only make $80 million rather than $100 million,” he says. “If it’s Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, it’s a Spider-Man movie. With Donald Glover, it’s a black superhero movie.”
That’s not to say, though, that it can’t happen, and that it will never happen in the future. As Andy continues, “Spider-Man can perfectly accommodate actors of any race, as Peter Parker is just a lower middle-class kid from Queens and that description can apply to literally anyone.”
Captain America, too, could also accommodate a black actor, as he was just a volunteer soldier who becomes a superhuman – white men were not the only people volunteering to fight, and as Andy explains: “A comic book origin story called Truth: Red, White & Black already sets up the idea that the early Super Soldier experiments were performed on black soldiers, which tackles the racial prejudice themes that ran through the era, and therefore makes the idea of a black Captain America work without any raised eyebrows.”
Still linking in with the casting of superhero, an even more recent example is when African-American actor Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in 2011’s Marvel film Thor. The criticism here was that a black actor couldn’t play a Norse God, but as Elba himself comments: “Can a black man play a Nordic character? Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”
So why does the colour of an actor really matter? “If the colour of the character’s skin is not a vital part of their personality the only thing people should care about is the quality of the performance,” says Andy. “Having Idris Elba play Heimdall in Thor takes nothing away from that character, but it does guarantee that the performance has the right amount of gravitas.”
In the end, a large part of these criticisms relate to fictional characters that come from comic books and novels that, with their already large fan bases, have an audience who go into a film already with their mindset on what these characters should look like.
As Andy concludes, “Anything that deviates from the very specific image they have in their head is going to be met with resistance. Sure, there will be a bigoted element to some of these people but I don’t believe every example of this comes down to simple racism.”
And despite how cruel and insensitive The Hunger Game tweeters’ comments were, this is something we all need to keep in mind when thinking about them. This can’t be said for all of the comments said about Stenberg’s role as Rue, but let’s hope it’s the case for most of them.