"Why Is Rue Black?" Racism and the Hunger Games

6 years ago

The Hunger Games opened this weekend as the third-highest grossing film of all time, behind only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two, and The Dark Knight. Online, in print, and in person, it seemed like everywhere I looked or went someone was talking about the movie or the Suzanne Collins book it was based on. Was this the United States I was living in, I wondered, or Hunger Games Nation?

These days it's a little of both. But as the reactions rolled in, amid the typical disagreements over whether the film was better or worse than the book, true to the story or too far afield, other topics surfaced. One of these, unexpectedly to many people who likely expect more from human beings than base behavior and judgments based on skin color, was the race of the characters -- more specifically, the races of the actors playing some of the main characters. Some moviegoers, unbelievably, expressed disappointment, confusion, concern, or outright revulsion on Twitter and Facebook that characters Rue, Thresh, and Cinna were played by black actors.

Yes. Disappointment. Confusion. Concern. Outright revulsion, because that's not sad and ridiculous at all. (Except for yes, yes it is.)

Image Credit: Lionsgate Films

The Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr published many of the tweets, Reactions range from "I didn't think Rue would be black" to more hateful descriptions involving the n-word, with some tweeters saying that the presence of the black actors "ruined" the film, and in one sad, memorable case, a person stating that he was less sad when a character died because she was black:

Most of these accounts that have since been shuttered, and gag accounts for some of the original posters, such as maggie_mcd11's, have been created, publishing variations of her well-publicized "not gonna lie" meme.

Not gonna lie, those tweets kinda ruined my night, and clearly, these people who feel so betrayed did not read the descriptions of these characters very carefully. (Reading comprehension counts, kids.) Collins writes this description of Rue in the book:  

And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor.

And Thresh:

The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He's one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox.

Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, is only described as having green eyes and close-cropped dark hair. And all I'll say about that is that I cannot fathom why anyone would have any problem with Lenny Kravitz's appearance in any context, or why Jezebel commenters spent hundreds of words parsing this when they could have been discussing how we live on a planet where people are tweeting ignorant comments about characters described as having dark skin actually being played by actors of color. (Hat-tip to Kelly Wickham, @mochamomma, for pointing out the comment thread there.) 

Racial chatter is not new in the context of this movie, unfortunately. Racialicious published a post in November, 2011 called "Yes, There Are Black People In Your Hunger Games," soon after posters for the movie were released and some fans were similarly rattled that the actors didn't reflect their perceptions of the characters as white. In this case the site published Facebook threads from The Hunger Games wall with similar themes of confusion and in some cases upset over the presence of black actors in roles that were, again, depicting characters described as having dark skin. 

And it's not like the book's description really matters anyway. What if a director or producer wanted to cast a talented actor like Amandla Stenberg or Dayo Okeniyi as Rue or Thresh respectively? What difference does it make? 

There is hope, in the many responses on the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr and the Facebook page from people upset and embarrassed by the racially-motivated reactions.

From Fruitpunchmouth on Tumblr

Your tumblr has really depressed me. Thanks for ruining my night! I don't blame you, i blame all the fail in this country.

Aviceinvirtue wrote

I just stumbled upon this page, and I'll admit I haven't read the Hunger Games, but kudos to you for this blog. This an important and disturbing phenomena that needs to be addressed. The mental "white washing" of anything or anyone deemed important, innocent, or the like needs to be exposed.

There are more than 30,000 comments on the film's Facebook page since it was released, so I will leave wading through that to someone with more time or research fortitude, but a quick scan indicates that there are many comments there as well, refuting the attitudes expressed by what is hopefully a minority of movie-goers. 

What is more easily exposed through widespread access to the internet and computers which which to access it is that the attitudes driving these responses do exist, like it or not. If any of us live in mental or physical spaces where we believe that racism is a thing of the past, a quick scan of the ugly comments on any given news article online should disabuse us of that notion, sadly but truly. And in a week that saw not only this kind of reaction to The Hunger Games, but the continued outcry over the lack of an arrest for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, it is clear that this is not a time to shy away from challenging discriminatory or reductive comments, even those that are brushed off as innocuous or as the result of "confusion" if not outright vile prejudice over the casting of a black actor in a blockbuster film.

The internet has stripped away a veil that existed simply because people did not have the immediate and interactive platforms that they do now. It's easy to remain unaware of things when you're not exposed to them, and if you didn't hang out with racists before they could talk to you -- and if they didn't hang out with you -- it was much easier for each to believe, or at least pretend, that the other didn't exist. Now it's hard to avoid opposing views, in a world where it's easier than it has ever been in history to share them. Language, beliefs and opinions that are unpalatable to many of us -- racism, bigotry against any number of oppressed groups, and just plain cruelty and meanspiritedness -- exist just a click away, at all times, like it or not.  

But you know what they say about the devil that you know, and while it may be unpleasant and baffling and upsetting, what you can do when you know it is respond to it, with a Tumblr or a blog post or a tweet or, just maybe, an in-person conversation. It doesn't make my day better to read someone's opinion that they are less sad about a character's death because the actor was black. It kills my appetite and my mood, and makes me despair for the human race, honestly. But if I know it exists it gnaws at me, it prods me to act, it makes me speak up more loudly and consistently. And for the odds to ever go in our favor, I tend to think it's always better to be informed. 

At least that's what I think. What about you? 

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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