THE HUNGER GAMES Movie: It Has Black In It

By which, of course, I’m referring to the dismal decision to cast some random black cat as Buttercup, instead of the adorable, sweet, innocent yellow tabby I totally pictured him as.  Why did the producers have to make all the good cats black?  Not gonna lie, kinda ruined the movie.

/joke

Are mockingjays edible?

If the above joke makes no sense, you’ve probably been spared the racist kerfluffle that followed the opening of the film version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the oh-so-popular YA novel in which 22 teenagers die horribly and the ones that get to live try not to die inside for getting to live.  (If you get the “joke” but it is not funny to you, you are probably a human being.)

The book made it onto the American Library Association’s 2010-2011 Frequently-Challenged Books list for, among other things, having no moral lesson whatsoever other than “if you are a teenager and you kill 23 other teenagers, you win and your family wins.”  But that’s not the utter lack of reading comprehension I want to talk about!    I want to talk about another utter lack of reading comprehension! The kind that makes some people say things that are not only racist, but completely inaccurate.  Things like:

Why does Rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie

And for the record, im still pissed that rue is black.  Like you think she might have mentioned that..?

These comments are so wrongity it’s hard to know where to start.  They are a double-dip of wrongity.  The obvious racism is one dip, of course, but the other is the total lack of reading comprehension displayed by their authors.  Because Suzanne Collins does, in fact, “mention that” Rue is a black girl.  Twice:

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

The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there….

Rue, as portrayed by Amandla Stenberg.

Ahem.

In an April 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Suzanne Collins was even more explicit about the races of Rue and Thresh: “They’re African-American.”  Doesn’t get more clear than that, really.

Other Twitter comments are even more unapologetically racist.  One commenter announced herself disturbed that Rue was a “black” girl and not the “sweet, innocent” girl the Tweeter had pictured – implying in a barely-veiled way that “black” and “sweet, innocent” are mutually exclusive categories.  Another noted that seeing Rue played by a black actress “made her death less sad to me” than if, say, Rue were white.  And a third actually Tweeted “Sense [sic] when is Rue a nigger.”

(Unlike Rue and Thresh, who were portrayed in the film by actors with similar skin color to that of the characters as described in the books, Buttercup actually is called a “muddy yellow” -colored cat – but his film counterpart is clearly a longhaired tuxedo.  So there’s that.)

Buttercup's Panem citizen ID card clearly shows that he is a natural yellow.

This is obviously more than mere reading-comprehension-skipping-details fail.  This is reading-comprehension-skipping-details fail that is almost certainly caused by either flat-out racism or rampaging white privilege (here, a distinction without a difference).  This is an assumption of white-as-default, white-as-good, white-as-angelic-and-all-things-loveable-and-cry-over-able-when-they-die-unjustly so pervasive and unchallenged that it manages to white out – pun intended – not one but two references to a character’s actual skin color in the text itself.

Then there was the more generally racist Hunger-Games-related Tweet, and possibly my favorite: “Why did the producers make all the good characters black smh.”  …Here, like with “sweet” and “innocent” above, “good” – for whatever value thereof – is mutually exclusive with having black skin.

And we wonder why Trayvon Martin‘s fate has exploded in this country.

Because here’s a question: why are “good,” “sweet,” and “innocent” mutually exclusive with “black skin,” if not for racism?  Do we really think that if I (for instance), a five-foot tall white lady, had been walking home from a convenience store while wearing a hoodie, carrying Skittles, and chatting on my cell phone, would have been seen as a “threat” by a self-appointed community watch guy, let alone shot by him – even if I really truly had landed the first punch?  I think not.  And I think anyone who can equate those two situations is either being disingenuous about the role racism plays in today’s America or is being disingenuous about the role sexism does.  Or both.  It can always be both.

On that note, let me leave you with this perceptive bit of perception, from Lindy West at Jezebel (though I encourage the clicking of this link so as to read the whole thing, as it is both perceptive AND funny):

In 2010, someone suggested that Community treasure [and black person] Donald Glover should be cast as Peter Parker in the forthcoming Spider-Man reboot (the role eventually went to Andrew Garfield). White people went FUCKING BERSERK. Glover received death threats. Just for the idea of him being allowed to audition for a movie version of Spider-Man (a movie that, by the way, already exists with a white actor in the lead role). And just like with Rue and Cinna and Thresh and the racist Twitter-teens, it’s a proprietary thing-if Spider-Man is black, then he isn’t ours anymore. He’s theirs. Waaaaaaaahhh! In MY America, Spider-Man is white! In MY America, I don’t have to worry about non-white people all browning up my young adult fiction movie adaptations! It’s not fair—it’s like this isn’t MY America at all anymore.

Pro tip, fellow white people: It never was.

It'll be less sad when this cat doesn't die.

About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is an MA candidate in English, focusing on disability studies, pedagogy, and humorless feminism. She earned a law degree once. It didn't take.
This entry was posted in book news, books into film, literary criticism, politics, social justice, YA fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to THE HUNGER GAMES Movie: It Has Black In It

  1. Teressa says:

    So much win in this. I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s been really interesting reading the reactions. (Also, win for “race kerfuffle. Go Community! I didjn’t know that about Donald Glover and the Spiderman thing.

    I think this post brings up an interesting thing – yesterday I was telling David that I partly blame my gothness on the 80’s cartoons I grew up with. All the “good girl” and heroines always long blonde hair, all the villians always had dark hair, sometimes short. I had short dark hair growing up, so I really came to identify with them. It’s fascinating what gets labeled as “sweet” and “good” when it comes to physical attributes….

    • Dani Alexis says:

      If I were an 80s cartoon character, I’d almost certainly be Evil-Lyn. Only less willing to put up with Skeletor’s constant barrage of highly uncreative and numbingly repetitive insults. Actually, screw that; I’d totally just take over Eternia myself.

      I do find it interesting that people pictured “sweet, innocent” Rue not only as white, but also blonde. Darkness of any kind is a serious problem to our society. Unless it’s a white person with a tan, but that’s pretty obviously a class thing, not a race thing – and it’s fascinating how that one has turned on its head in less than a hundred years, as we’ve gone from a society where a tan meant you worked your ass off daily to one where a tan means you lie around idle in some fancy locale daily (or at least that’s what it’s meant to imply – that you have the leisure time/money either to lie around in the sun, probably on a beach, or to pay someone to spray-paint you every few weeks).

      I once had a great argument in a sociology class about “white people tanning” versus “dark-skinned people using skin lightening cream.” Several of my classmates were convinced they were the same thing and that therefore there was nothing oppressive about a world where dark-skinned people felt the need to apply dangerous chemicals to their skin in order to gain a few more grains of racial privilege. OMGWUT.

      And then there’s the fact that Prim, the series’ other angelic “little girl”, actually *is* lighter-skinned (in the book) and/or white (in the film) and blonde. Not sure what to say about what that says about us, yet.

  2. 2catladies says:

    Hahahaha.

    You win.

    I’m glad that other people think people are dumb. I was actually rather put off when I learned that Buttercup was the wrong color…and pleased when I learned that Rue and Thresh were the right color.

    • Dani Alexis says:

      I think I’ll get over Buttercup far more quickly than the authors of these now-infamous tweets will get over Rue and Thresh’s skin tones. Especially since my interest in Buttercup being yellow and not black-and-white is mostly because his name is BUTTERCUP, not because I benefit in any way from an institutionalized system of oppression of black-and-white cats.

      (Gracie informs me that cats would not stand for that nonsense anyway, as they all know they are equally beautiful – and far superior in beauty to any other creature – regardless of fur color.) :)

  3. euphqueen1 says:

    I’m so confused by the backlash against casting black kids for these roles, and I say that as someone whose envisioning of the characters has also been altered: I imagined Rue and Thresh as Latino. The dark-skinned description could apply to people of South American, Asian and Middle Eastern descent, as well as many people of various island nations, American Indians, and obviously, black people.

    If anything, I think there’s not enough diversity in The Hunger Games. Look at how many different races live in America now! Why would everyone in the Arena be white? Why would they even be black or white? People complain about weird things, and also they are not good with the reading comprehension.

    Awesome post!

    • Dani Alexis says:

      Thanks!

      Given the lengths the book goes to in making race ambiguous, I’m actually surprised at the fits being thrown too. Most characters whose skin colors are described at all are described in terms of color (lighter, olive, dark, etc.), not in terms of race (white, black, etc.). Which I think makes sense, given that Panem is an imagined future in which the racial categories we use on this continent today probably no longer make any sense.

      …I find that bit hopeful. The whole “oppressing large swaths of the continent and making kids fight one another to the death for the amusement of a privileged few” thing, not so much.

      But then I wonder how far we really are from that, on a global scale especially, right now? Then I realize that would probably make a good post, once I take the rambling out. :)

      • euphqueen1 says:

        I agree that our concepts of race probably don’t make much sense in Hunger Games. It seems like everyone is so poor and overworked, they’d have lost whatever cultural trappings their race used to carry in favor of becoming drones of their districts. It just makes the kerfuffle all the more confusing: Race isn’t the point of Hunger Games; socioeconomic class is the big dividing line in the book’s world. People are too busy starving to be racist.

  4. BRILLIANT. That’s all, just loved your take on this!

  5. Howard Bannister says:

    Loved your analysis.

    Not gonna lie; I was totally shocked when I first saw Rue. I was all, “hey, I thought she was Asian-American in the books! And Thresh too!”

    Partly because of the not-quite-explicit writing, but mostly because of white privilege.

    But the actress for Rue was heart-stoppingly good. And the way the camera didn’t flinch back from her wounds as it had for every other character… well, I cried, and I cried. And then I cried some more. And after the movie I still needed a hug.

    And then I found out about folks saying all those things above.

    Gah.

    PS: I just ordered the new Ultimate Spiderman collections available; the ones with a black Spider-man. So much love for Marvel and Brian Michael Bendis for that….

  6. Hi Dani Alexis! Your post is an excellent commentary on race. I’m wondering if you’re interested in taking a look at my book, Expecting. There’s a cat in it named Lady Gaga, and a fair amount of stuff about race. Mostly, it’s feminist YA fiction for smart young women. Please contact me if you’re interested. http://www.LulaBelleAuthor.com THanks!

  7. Jeanne Heuer says:

    So glad you said all of this, saves me a rant on my blog. I can hardly believe those people read the book. Maybe they had someone read to them and they don’t listen well.

  8. progressivelements says:

    I thought there was a very clear subtext about District 11 – one of the poorest, most over-worked districts, with incredibly violent Peacekeepers (public whippings and executions), working primarily in agriculture, living not in a city, but in a large rural spread in small shacks, in a hot and humid climate with huge fields of grains… to me this spoke strongly to the history of enslaving African-Americans in the South. It was ridiculously clear to me that the vast majority of District 11 are African-American (with a few lighter skinned people who might “pass” – hate that word – as a different race today). I don’t think this subtext was an accident!

  9. progressivelements says:

    I should also add, I pictured the vast majority of the residents of the Seam as mixed-race and, particularly, Native/First Nations. Given that Panem is structured with the “lower” numbered districts generally as the more privileged, it made sense to me that the remnants of racism from America would have skin colour generally being darker in the “higher” numbered districts. Not necessarily a hierarchy of racist oppression, but certainly the distribution would be noticable. I certainly noticed that no Capitol residents seem to be anything but white.

  10. progressivelements says:

    Sorry to keep writing – I just remember Cinna is black. Still, my point stands.

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