Borders Line: Jennifer Lawrence Is A Lily-White Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES

No doubt Lawrence will give an outstanding performance in THE HUNGER GAMES. But could they have found a whiter, blonder Katniss?

Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence has been cast as Katniss Everdeen, the crabby, indomitable sixteen-year-old revolutionary in the upcoming adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA trilogy The Hunger Games. Lawrence was revealed several days ago to be the front-runner in a competitive race for the popular role that included such names as Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin and Chloe Moretz.

If you haven’t read The Hunger Games, you should.  The first novel is a damn near perfect postapocalyptic exploration that gets the Battle Royale treatment, wild and violent and gripping as hell. (The second and especially third novels descend into eventual tedium and absurdity, but I defy you to keep yourself from reading them after finishing the first installment in one breathless sitting.) Prickly protagonist Katniss is described as a dark-haired teenager with gray eyes and olive skin. She is fiercely protective of her younger sister and is the caretaker of her family after the death of her father, forcing her to live as an adult at just sixteen.

Twenty-year-old Lawrence played Ree Dolly in an Oscar-nominated performance for this year’s Winter’s Bone.  Ree is fiercely protective of her younger siblings and is the caretaker of her family after the absence of her father, forcing her to live as an adult at just seventeen.

And then there’s Hailee Steinfeld, who played Mattie Ross in another Oscar-nominated turn this year, in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit.  Mattie is fiercely protective of her younger siblings and is the caretaker of her family after the death of her father, forcing her to live as an adult at just fourteen. There’s the added bonus that Steinfeld is actually a teenager, has dark hair and eyes and olive skin.

I think Jennifer Lawrence is a tremendous actress. Her nuanced performance in Winter’s Bone is flinty but graceful, a true revelation. I have no doubt that she’ll make an outstanding Katniss and will bring a needed maturity to the role that an actual teenager may not be able to convey, as Katniss has necessarily fortified herself through a life of poverty and strife. Add to the equation the understandably restrictive child labor laws for the entertainment industry, and casting a youthful twenty-year-old makes a lot of sense.

No, my issue isn’t with Lawrence’s age. But could they have found a whiter, blonder Katniss? Granted, Steinfeld is also white, but at least she has the obligatory olive coloring. Katniss and her kin come from The Seam, a coal miner district whose inhabitants are characterized by their dark skin, hair and eyes. Wealthier members of society are described as having light skin, hair and eyes. Discussion of race and classism is in no way an accident in Collins’ trilogy. You might even say that’s essentially the point of the trilogy. So why did the casting call for Katniss include the deliberate criterion of an actress of Caucasian descent?

I’m all about transcending character appearance and ethnicity in favor of a talented performer, particularly when the change is in the other direction: a traditionally white character portrayed by an accomplished actor of color. I say “particularly” in that circumstance because that almost never happens, and when it does, fans get up in arms with a quickness. (See Devin’s post on Idris Elba’s casting in Thor for an example.) If The Hunger Games casting call had been accessible to actresses of open ethnicity and then the search was narrowed down to Lawrence as the best actress for the role, I would happily accept it. But to eliminate an opportunity for ethnically diverse actresses to even audition for an ethnically diverse character, particularly when those actresses are generally far more limited in the roles they are offered, is incredibly troubling to me. Lawrence will no doubt turn in a terrific performance as Katniss. But she’s going to need a lot of bronzer.

You can read more from Meredith at www.dannyisnthere.com .

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