Last weekend, a friend and I got into a discussion about the politics of race in film, specifically in re: The Hunger Games. Like many others, I was thoroughly annoyed about the casting choice for the main character, Katniss Everdeen. Like others, I saw in Katniss’ description as an olive-skinned, grey eyed, and dark haired girl something closer to a mixed race person. I imagined someone who would look like my 5 month old niece and nephew. I didn’t see blonde-haired, blue eyed Jennifer Lawrence with a spray tan and a dye job. Apparently, a large section of America didn’t see any of the characters as *not* being white—specific descriptions of darker-skinned characters and colorblind casting be darned.
Of course, we all read our own sensibilities into a book; the pleasure of reading is to imagine the world the author has described put our own twist on it. For now, however, I’m going to sidestep the obvious problem that The Hunger Games seemed to unearth, mainly readers’—and specifically white readers’—expectation that unless a character is explicitly identified as such, he/she must, by default be white, as if whiteness is the racial standard to which we all hew.
I’ll instead talk about how my friend challenged me about the casting. He asked if I were trying to imprint social justice issues on an economic one. If the issue was that white Americans would avoid a movie because it had too many black/non-white people in it (just look to legendary filmmaker George Lucas’ very public problems getting studio funding to make a movie featuring black American war heroes), then wasn’t it an economic issue, as the studios are trying to make the most money possible?
My response was that social justice issues are never economically sound but are vitally important to creating an equal, just, and productive society. When more people are invited to partake at the table, the multiplicity of ideas, talent, life skills, and applicable experiences broadens almost exponentially. Just think of how students’ lives are intangibly improved by meeting classmates from different socioeconomic, linguistic, and national backgrounds; a student gains important insights into how others think and live—important skills for anyone who is going to work with, serve, or sell to a wide variety of people in the future.
Social justice issues have always, in my mind, seemed to butt heads against economics. Affirmative Action and Equal pay is seemingly economically unsound. Why pay more for a woman who needs maternity leave, or takes off to take care of her sick kids? Why waste extra time searching for women and/or People of Color to fill a position when it requires more company resources? Besides, isn’t that one golf course men only? It seems to be doing ok—well, since last week anyway.
As Arnold Hill argued in 1933 on the suggestion that paying black workers a living wage equal to white works was actually better for the country, “Few employers will pay more for their labor than they have to. If they can get Negroes cheaper than they can whites, the latter will often find themselves unwanted and unemployed…If the 2,500,000 Negroes in the North and the 9,500,000 in the South earned more they would buy more. The masses of Negroes have never purchased enough food, clothing, furniture, transportation, hospitalization, and the like. Twelve million people would greatly expand production if they were employed and paid according to their economic value rather than their social status.”
And if we really wanted to get into it, what about child labor laws? Not every kid likes school. Should we really force them to get an education, when they could earn money for themselves and their families (Newt Gingrich may have an opinion on this.)? And what about unions? Do teachers and cops and firefighters and other public servants really need them? People who work for an hourly wage could work as many hours as they wanted and get paid accordingly, without all that hoopla with the civil rights lawyers. Isn’t it my civil right to tell my electrician I won’t be paying anything more than $15 an hour for a job that could get him killed, or to tell my kid’s teacher that his/her 10-hour day wasn’t long enough because my child still can’t read Proust in French? (If only the kid hadn’t quit school in the 6th grade.)
You get my point, I think. All of these measures were forced upon the people. They were economically unsound, but societally beneficial. Providing day care or women’s health services at work ensures that creative talent isn’t lost into the ether and can make a company more money by attracting more creative, hardworking women and men who like working for a progressive company. Outlawing racial and gender discrimination helps communities, families, and individuals pump money back into the economy—remember, you can’t buy anything if you’ve not got the money to do it. Educating our kids ensures there will be future generations to work in those companies. Disabusing ourselves of the notion that people who become public servants are our servants, helps us retain, recruit, and train some of the bravest, smartest, and most talented people for the hardest jobs imaginable.
But what does this have to do with racialism in the movie industry?
By changing the ways movies are cast, by forcing ethnic/racial diversity we begin to see Americans of Color as always already interwoven into the American fabric, instead of the colorful thread that accents the quilt when it suits our whimsy. If that’s a little too hippie-dippy love fest for you, how about that forcing ethnic/racial diversity is good for a studio’s bottom line?
Can you honestly tell me you’re not sick of the Shrek movies, the poorly executed comic book-to-film adaptations, the vapid, formulaic chick flicks, or historical pieces about British aristocracy? Opening the door for more actors of color means the door is opened for makeup artists and hairstylists of color, who may also be budding fashion designers. Those actors may also turn out to be or to know brilliant writers of color, who also may turn out to be or know brilliant directors of color or know a producer of color who has always wanted to be involved in a movie. A film is now improved re: special effects, styling, dialogue, acting, and directing, leading to…da-daa-da-daaaa—more money at the box office from folks exhausted by those formulaic, sad little movies.
So when a studio issues a call for a groundbreaking movie to find a white actress instead of the *best* actress, it hurts us all in the end.
Movies are not just a mirror of how a nation sees itself, but a looking glass for other nations to see us. A movie can act as an instruction manual on how to regard a population. It’s time to update the manual.