A few years ago it was rumored for a few weeks that Will Smith was up for the lead role in Captain America: The First Avenger. It generally didn’t sit well with comic fans since the character had been established as white since Captain America’s 1940 debut, although there was a graphic novel that explored the idea of an African-American Captain America published in 2003.
Now it was never proven whether or not Smith was actually considered for the role, but fans seemed more comfortable with a white actor in the role since it reflect the original source material. After all, putting a black actor in a role of an All-American hero set during World War II would certainly provoke a significantly different take on the material simply due to racial attitudes of the time. Similarly, some people were disappointed that last summer’s Green Lantern starred Ryan Reynolds and not an African-American actor, as one of the many Green Lantern characters is an African-American (although the one Reynolds portrayed, Hal Jordan, has always been white). If there were any outrageous reactions, they went relatively unnoticed.
But would you expect outrage — and outright racism — from fans of a novel when an African-American actor is cast in the role of an African-American character?
Unfortunately, some fans of The Hunger Games have turned to Twitter to express their dislike over the movie’s casting choices. Curiously, while the race of the character Cinna (portrayed by Lenny Kravtiz) isn’t mentioned in the book, both Rue (portrayed by Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (portrayed by Dayo Okeniyi) are identified as having “dark skin” and, as a result, are played by actors of African descent. It’s fair enough if a reader didn’t pick up on those descriptions and didn’t initially imagine the characters were dark skinned. However, some fans of the book on Twitter have expressed outrage at the casting of African-American actors in these roles.
Several of the tweets have been reposted on Jezebel, and they run the gamut from people claiming the casting “ruined” the movie, questioning why the filmmakers “changed” the book (clarification: they didn’t), all the way to calling eleven year-old Stenberg a “bitch” or referring to her with a racial slur. It’s hideous that people would react this way, especially in light of the fact that the actors that were cast for Rue and Thresh fit the visual descriptions of the characters in the novel.
The person behind the Hunger Games Tweets tumblr who original brought the ignorant tweets to attention, expressed her sorrow that people reacted that way, as if the characters’ race somehow makes the story less powerful. The writer says, “These people are MAD that the girl that they cried over while reading the book was ‘some black girl’ all along” and ties that to the total apathy people regard stories on the news if some tragedy should befall someone who doesn’t look like them. Unfortunately, these tweeters went way beyond a “I didn’t know the characters were black” argument into outrage or disgust that those characters didn’t look the way they thought they did.
But it goes to show what happens when a film adaptation of a popular novel doesn’t match the image of what a reader has of those characters in his or her head. I’ve heard plenty of people argue that various aspects of the Harry Potter films didn’t look like they were “supposed to,” whether it was actors, sets, or situations, because they didn’t fit their personal image of the material. Actors are aware that when the race (or any other intrinsic attribute) of a character isn’t important, the best person for the role should be cast. Sometimes even actors who don’t fit the typical description of the character are cast anyway because of the strength of their performance. But I don’t recall hearing anyone sink to the level of tossing out offensive language simply because something or someone didn’t appear the way he or she expected it to.
Fortunately, since The Hunger Games broke all kinds of records this weekend, most people didn’t seem to mind what the actors looked like. And that’s exactly the way it should be.