Mr. Wright, I Presume?

Yesterday, we finally got our Beetee, and within seconds of seeing his name up on Lionsgatepublicity.com, which by the way does not have handy-dandy pictures as visual aids– I went from thinking, “I know that name, why do I know that name?!” To a mad scrambling IMDb-search, and then a mental exclamation of, “I totally know him! Oh, thank god!” And, then the dread set in almost immediately, because yep– Mr. Wright, if you haven’t noticed, which I actually didn’t notice until after I thought, “great character actor, been around a long time… loved him in Source Code, and Casino Royale. I like him”, Mr. Wright is black. Yep, dread I said before, but why? Because, unfortunately this world has a large population of people who are A. hypocrites. B. hypocrites who are also racists. C. hypocrites who have no idea that they’re racist, but they are. And D. All of the above, and they have Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, and Tumblrs. And, then the world wept, and shook with the emotion pouring out of its ravaged soul. 

This would be the third time I’ve had to address this issue of all out, disgusting, and completely displaced prejudice where it comes to casting decisions for this franchise. I don’t like talking about this issue, mostly because, well– it’s, 2012! But, I’m not naive, far from it– I know there’s an exorbitant amount of ignorance, prejudice, stereotyping, generalizing, and bigotry flooding this fair planet we all call home, but sometimes– just sometimes I wish it would leave this little franchise alone, so it could just be what it is– which is awesome. Look, I’ve seen the tweets, the Facebook comments, and the Tumblr gaffs that say off the cuff, and frankly idiotic things like, “not to be racist but why did they cast a black man as Beetee… he’s definitely supposed to be white.” Or, another one of my favorites, “I don’t intend on this sounding racist but I can’t believe they cast Beetee as a black guy? I imagined him old and fragile.” All righty, from here on out anyone who starts a statement with “not to be racist…”, or some other statement of a similar wording, just cough up the rock, ’cause the statement you just made is inherently racist, and you simply need to come to terms with that, and then do your utmost to change the way you look at the world, ’cause it’s sad, and it’s shallow, and it’s likely greatly hindering, and stifling your experience as a human being.

Take off the Ignorance Glasses, and look at the damn description Miss. Suzanne Collins gave us of our dear Beetee, “both are small in stature with ashen skin and black hair… Beetee, the man, is older and somewhat fidgety. He wears glasses but spends a lot of time looking under them.” (P. 226 American Hardcover Edition of Catching Fire) If you just read the same words I did, you didn’t see any adjectives there like, “white”, “lily white”, “skinny”, “older than dirt”, “ancient”, “fragile”, “pink”, “pale” or, hrm– “Caucasian”. The descriptive words are, “small”, “ashen skin”, “black hair”, “older”, however older in comparison to Wiress whom Katniss describes as, “probably around my mother’s age…” Oh, and Beetee wears glasses. So, Nothing in that description, whom many have described as an ambiguous description, does Miss Collins state that Beetee is black, white, Asian, Native American, or a unicorn. Why? Because, if you didn’t notice Katniss doesn’t categorize people into familiar racial groups, her racial groups, which are actually ethnic and/or socio-economic groups, are Seam and Merchant, so anyone outside of that she takes in their appearance and doesn’t judge them according to social constructs that our society dictates. Katniss, she sees small, she sees ashen skin, which to the eyes of a girl who grew up around a healer, means she’s taking in that those two people are sickly– not white, but sickly. Race doesn’t mean much to her, true she took in that Thresh and Rue had dark skin, but she also took in that Rue was the same age as her sister, and had a similar personality, she doesn’t put up a jarring description of BLACK, she saw, innocent child. Sadly, in most societies now a-days, because the character Beetee is characterized as a technological genius, we’re socially constructed to put him into one of two racial categories, white, and Asian, because we really like our stereotypes– a lot.

So, what have we learned? Not much probably, but at least we got our Beetee finally, and he’s a good actor, whom also just happens to be able to tick off black when he fills out a census form.

Them There Eyes

20 comments

  1. Hmm…just to play devil’s advocate, I’m not sure if saying “This isn’t how I imagined Beetee, I thought he was white”, by itself, is any more racist than someone saying “This isn’t how I imagined Johanna, I thought she was Hispanic”, or “This isn’t how I imagined Katniss, I thought she was mixed-race”, or “This isn’t how I imagined Plutarch, I thought he was black”, etc, etc.

    Though you could certainly argue that some of these people, though often accusing LG of being racist and “white washing” characters, were being hypocrites and showcasing their own prejudices and stereotypes; it seemed that some people were convinced that “Johanna MUST be Hispanic” because they have a stereotype of Hispanic women as loud, sassy, “bad-ass”, etc.

    Anyway, I don’t blame people for interpreting “little and ashen” to mean a little white or Asian man. Much as, if you think about it, the “brown skin and eyes” description of Rue doesn’t *have* to mean African-American, it could as easily apply to an Indian (both in the Native American AND South Asian meaning of the word), Hispanic, Caribbean Islander, or Australian Aborigine girl. Suzanne Collins herself eventually stated that she meant for Rue and Thresh to be African-American, but I’m talking about the book itself.

    What IS racist, to me, is when people refuse to reconsider their pre-conceptions and refuse to question their stereotypes when they are challenged, but instead, cling to them more. Or when they make it sound like black people are somehow less smart (in this case) or loveable than white people. That’s what really struck me as racist about the Rue tweets, that they made it clear that some people still see a Black person’s life as less valuable, since many stated that they weren’t as sad about Rue dying, once they realized she was black, not white.

    Also sad that many people assumed, since Katniss stated that Rue reminded her of Prim, that Rue *must* have been white and blonde like Prim. The idea that someone could actually look beyond a race of a person and look at other aspects of their personality and find something similar to a loved one, I guess is beyond the daily experience of many people here.

    Also sad that, unfortunately, some people will take this as a sign that THG fans are racist in general, such as in this article here. Sigh.

    http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/71781176.html

  2. People pitch a fit because the cast is “whitewashed”, but when a cast member is black they are going to raise hell too. These people are so pathetically racist against every single person cast that they just need to freaking shut up. I am so sick of all of this.

  3. Oh and while this is a little OT…I don’t think Katniss sees the Seam/Merchant divide as being about race, really. About ethnicity and socio-economic class? Of course. But that’s not the same as race. To me it reminded me more of the “Irish Catholic Need Not Apply” era in the US; I think most of the WASPy people putting up these signs, if pressed, would have admitted that Irish people are white; didn’t stop them from being bigoted anyway.

    Also, though I myself am guilty of writing as if it is, Hispanic is NOT a racial classification, it’s ethnic. Some people who classify as Hispanic look lily-white, others look darker than many who classify as African-American, and many look “mixed”. And some actually look Asian…because there are a lots of people who have Asian ancestry in South America, and some wind up in the US, probably wondering if they should check off that little “Hispanic” box on the census. Many South Asian people emigrated to the Caribbean, and I have a Jamaican friend who once introduced me to her cousin who was fairly light-skinned and looked South Asian. I remembered that they laughed and noted that most people they met in the states couldn’t believe they were cousins!

    Besides, SC doesn’t say that EVERYONE in the Seam looks the same, just that most people do. I also know of the “Prim was actually fathered by Peeta’s dad” theory that also seems to rest on this idea that Merchant and Seam are racial categories, and there’s no way a Merchant-Seam pairing would result in blond kids. But I doubt SC herself saw it this way, since at the end Katniss and Peeta themselves have a brunette girl and a blond boy.

  4. ETA: Er, forgot to add, my Jamaican friend (as in, was actually born in Jamaica and emigrated to the US), herself is very dark-skinned, more so than many who identify as African-American. And I don’t even think people who are surprised that she has a relative who looks South Asian are racist, per se. There is still a lot of de facto segregation and I can understand why some people who grew up with neighbors and friends almost exclusively of one race or ethnicity, would wind up ignorant about others.

    Also, while I know some sociologists will say that only people who have power and priviledge (aka, white males) can be actually racist, I think most would agree that it doesn’t matter what background you come from, people can be prejudiced, hold stereotypes, and be discriminatory, just because human nature is flawed. Even Katniss realizes that she was guilty of making assumptions about Peeta, when she seems surprised when Peeta mentions the goat cheese tarts that he only got to eat if it had gone stale.

  5. One of the things I find fascinating about the reaction to Wright’s casting is some people claiming they thought Beetee was “old.” I’ve never heard that distinction in people’s description of Beetee before yesterday. In the few depictions of Beetee in fan art, he’s never been drawn as old and I’ve seen no one objections to that, either.

    (As an aside, I’ve also never heard of an Asian person being described as “ashen.” Suggesting Beetee should have been cast with an Asian actor because he’s a tech geek is itself perpetuating a stereotype.)

    Since the most popular fan choice was Michael Emerson, who is 58 (not young, but certainly not elderly) and the reaction to the Tony Shalhoub rumor was mostly positive (59, again, not elderly) I suspect in at least some cases it’s a cover-up for people who want to pretend it’s not Wright’s race they object to. Wright is 47, hardly a kid.

    That said, I agree with Satsuma that just saying that’s not how you pictured the character doesn’t automatically make someone a racist. People have said the exact same thing about Sam as Finnick, and Jena as Johanna. But there have been some obviously racist remarks, and it makes me very upset to see Hunger Games fans as a group being called racist because of that. Especially since most of us have been thrilled about the actors cast regardless of their race or ethnicity.

    1. It kills me that people don’t realize that “older” could encompass pretty much any adult age range because it comes from the perspective of a 17-year-old!

      If the comments were simply “That’s not how I pictured the character,” that would be tolerable. But what we’ve got are blatantly racist comments degrading a talented actor because his skin color is not what they assumed.

  6. I sometimes hate The hunger games fandom. There is always something to complain about and especially when it comes to race. In this case with Jeffrey Wright, is just ridicules for people saying the stupid and unnecessary racist comments against him. If you dont like the actor because he doesn’t look they way you imagined, then get over it, its not your movie. Looks are not the only reason to cast an actor in the movie, instead its there acting abilities that matter. The same goes with Finnick, If they were to cast someone based on the fans decision, then they would just pick the most “hotest” guy from a male modeling shoot with no acting abilities at all. There is a reason Lionsgate cast these actors, and I trust them every since they included Philip Seymour Hoffman. I for one love the choice for Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and think he is a great actor and really cant wait to see him in character.

  7. Great article that a lot of so-called Hunger Games ‘fans’ should read. As others have said, I don’t think it’s racist to imagine someone being of a certain colour/race (I imagined Beetee as white purely because that’s how I interpreted Collins’ use of “ashen” to describe him), but to say you’re disappointed with the casting or that the character has been ‘ruined’ just because the actor chosen isn’t that colour is aboslutely ridiculous. Not to mention that many people’s opinions have been based on idiocy – how can anyone miss the many descriptions of Rue’s dark skin or expect Katniss to have black roots if her sister has pale skin and blonde hair?

    I don’t think I’ve seen Jeffrey Wright in anything (apart from ‘Source Code’, a movie I’ve completely forgotten) and he’s definitely not how I pictured Beetee, but I’m excited to see him in ‘Catching Fire’ based on the excellent reviews and critical acclaim he’s received. In general, I think the casting for these films has been brilliant and we should all wait to see the finished product before we judge the choices made!

  8. Any time you hear a sentence start with, “Not to sound racist, but…”, you know it’s not going to end well (ie. it’s guaranteed to be racist). Ugh

    I was super happy about hearing Jeffrey Wright was cast, because I’ve been a fan of his for quite a few years. He’s one of those actors that I’m always stoked to see pop up in a film, because I know he’ll be fantastic. The stupid racists don’t know how how much they’ll be eating their words in about 15 months time, in the wake of his awesomeness.

    Anyway, I love that they’re adding genuine diversity to the film. It’s more real and a lot more interesting.

  9. For some reason, my headcanon Beetee was always a black man. I’m not trying to say this with that Hipster sneer! I would have been perfectly happy no matter who was cast in the role as long as that person could act, which Jeffrey Wright clearly can!

    1. Yeah, when told my Mum (who is another fan) that Jeffrey Wright had been cast as Beetee, she said she imagined him as black when she read the book. I can’t say I had any race in mind with Beetee or with many other supporting characters for that matter. I kinda like that – that they existed in my head more as a concept of their personality rather than a specific look. Besides, Suzanne Collins didn’t dwell much on appearances in her writing, so I feel like the fans shouldn’t either.

      I must say though, I saw Enobaria as black and I saw Paylor as hispanic. That impression was validated with Enobaria’s casting, so heres hoping for Paylor. :D

  10. If anyone checked out the comments on the Ohnotheydidn’t blog, I think even the response there, shows how hypocritical people can be. Many of them lump all HG fans together as if we’re all racist. Then people start grousing that “not all POC are black” and some people state that Beetee should have been Asian, I guess they figure, “as long as I don’t express a preference for white people I’m not racist!” Some start ragging on LG for not casting more Hispanic people, and last I checked, a couple people were ragging on them for casting a white actor to play Finnick. Because obviously, there is no such thing as a white person who can get a tan and Finnick MUST be non-white. Uh-huh.

    I suspect that SC herself would be appalled by all sides of this. She shows in the books themselves that she does NOT let people off the hook for being bigoted just because they are oppressed and victimized; I think she definitely meant to portray Gale as bigoted against all Capitol people, in a way Katniss and Peeta aren’t. And while Gale at first is powerless to do anything about it, but later he DOES get power, and…well, we all know how that turned out.

    To address the reading comprehension part of it: “Ashen”, technically, means “Ash” colored, as in grey; however, I doubt that SC meant for Beetee and Wiress to have GRAY skin. Ashen tends to be used more to convey that someone TURNED pale because they were scared, upset, etc. Not that it’s their baseline skin color.

    Also, re the whole issue of “Olive” skin. This is really more a hue than a color. There’s a Wikipedia entry on “olive skin” that states:

    “Named for its green and gold undertones (the color of an olive), it refers to an earthy skin tone which can be warm, neutral, cool, or anything in between. Typically olive skin is a darker complexion that is naturally tanned, however can be lighter in color as well. Fair olive-skinned people have light skin that in cold weather may seem “fair” or “pale”, but a slight but usually noticeable olive hue remains. This distinguishing aspect of the skin type is what contributes to its name and differentiates it from other skin types.”

    It also states that “Olive skin or Beige skin describes a skin color spectrum that is frequent in populations inhabiting Southern Europe, as well as parts of North Africa, North India the Middle East, East Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asian.”

    So, Katniss and other Seam inhabitants having “olive” skin does NOT mean they can’t be Caucasian. That being said, it certainly didn’t mean they HAD to be Caucasian, and I do think the people protesting the Katniss casting call being specifically for “Caucasian” actresses DID have a point.

    All that being said, it does seem that people feel more justified critcizing this casting than they did Rue’s; unlike the Rue casting in which there really were only a few tweets floating around. This negative reaction has actually taken place on the official Hunger Games Movie Facebook site, in which, ironically, LG posted the casting announcement with the lead-in, “Please welcome to the cast of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Jeffrey Wright, as Beetee!”

    I also think that even if we put the race issue to one side, this response, again, shows a ridiculous sense of self-entitlement that some fans have developed regarding the casting and other more nitpicky movie critiques and requests. This idea that if LG doesn’t fulfill every single image I have, they are doing me wrong. As opposed to acknowledging that everyone interprets the characters in their own way, and it would be impossible for a movie to satisdy everyone.

  11. I was somewhat surprised by this casting. Mainly because I did not know who he was and well he was black when almost all cast where white, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I dont know if this is reversed racism or what not, but I hoped that CF would be more diverse and that some bigger supporting actors would be other ethnicity than caucasian. Of course the main thing is that they should be talented actors. Now that I have read what mr Wright has done, I’m pleased that they have hired such a talented guy. It’s secondary that he is black, but I’m kinda glad that he is.

  12. Also, I am annoyed at the “this proves ALL THG fans are racist” angle, because the racie issue isn’t just a problem affecting HG fandom either. I recall that once on a Harry Potter site, one person kept insisting that Hermione’s “brown bushy hair” could only belong to a Black girl, and that the moviemakers were being racist and “white washing” by casting Emma Watson. She then pretty much accused anyone disagreeing with her of being a racist, ignorant, etc. I have no problem with someone stating that they see Hermione as Black or mixed-race, but I don’t think insulting people who disagree does anything positive.

    I also recall that in the Twilight movie, some people complained about Taylor Lautner playing a Native American when he wasn’t one himself. Also, Edi Gauthegi who played Laurent was very dark-skinned, but per book canon should not have looked that way, because per the Official Twilight Guide, there is no such thing as a dark-skinned vampire, the skin actually lightens in color during the transformation, so that a light-skinner person turns deathly pale, and “dark-skinned humans having a barely discernible olive tone to their vampire skin”, which Laurent actually is described as having in the books. But some of the protests about this seemed racially tinged. There were also people complaining about an Asian actor playing Eric, even though his race isn’t mentioned anywhere in the books.

    I’m sure there are also some people out there who think SC herself is racist for making the two most “pure” characters in the story, Peeta and Prim, be white kids with blonde hair and blue eyes. Personally, I’m sick and tired of people making EVERYTHING to be about race.

  13. I’ve always pictured Beetee as black – sort of a cross of TJ from Disney’s “Smart Guy” and, for whatever reason, Cleveland from Family Guy. So appearance-wise Jeffrey Wright definitely fits my headcanon. And from watching clips from some of his movies I completely expect him to deliver. I’m very excited about this casting decision and can’t wait to see it all come together next year!

    The fact that some people are upset at this decision really makes me sad. I wish they would go in with an open mind and the script and acting might be so good it won’t matter what your headcanon was. To me, Woody Harleson and Josh Hutcherson did such great jobs in THG that I can barely remember my headcanon for Haymitch or Peeta – they just ARE Haymitch and Peeta. Hopefully Catching Fire will be just as good, or be even better.

  14. Interesting link I noted on the WelcometoDistrict 12 twitter feed that showed up on this site as well: A link to an interview with SC and GR about the movie, in which SC herself actually addresses the race issue:

    http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/04/07/hunger-games-suzanne-collins-gary-ross-exclusive/

    “SC: They [Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup. But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.

    GR: Thresh and Rue.

    SC: They’re African-American.”

    Now, I realize there is a school of thought that once a book is released, the author’s intent doesn’t matter at all, and I’m sure people who are very invested in the “Seam people are POC” angle will continue to insist that even if SC didn’t intend for that to be the case, that’s what she put in the actual books. But personally, I do think author intent matters in rebutting the charge of “white washing” which is when, much like in the Avatar: Last Airbender movie, characters who are SPECIFIED as being non-white, are played by white actors. You can state a general wish for a diverse cast without misusing terminology.

  15. Just out of curiosity, why is former President Bush pictured? I sure didn’t love the guy and I did not vote for him, but he did have a pretty good record of appointing blacks and minorities to senior positions, most notably Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Or maybe your point is that he got the damned if you do, damned if you don’t treatment, too?

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