If you’ve frequented the Internet in the last few weeks, particularly the usual suspects of Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, then chances are you not only know about “The Hunger Games” movie hype but also the related racial controversy. For those of you still in the dark: the adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular series hit theaters March 23. The futuristic film, superficially about “kids killing kids,” has drawn attention for its commercial success, political message and faithfulness to the book. The cast is also eliciting a strong response from some moviegoers — but not for all the reasons you might think.
Though many performances are receiving rave reviews (Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist, Katniss, for instance), the loudest and most surprising fan commentary has been in response to Rue and Thresh (two of Katniss’ competitors during the titular Hunger Games) and Cinna (Katniss’ stylist). These characters, described with varying degrees of racial ambiguity in the novel, are all portrayed by black actors in the film. Dayo Okeniyi and Lenny Kravitz, respectively, play Thresh and Cinna, while 13-year-old Amandla Stenberg is Rue, the story’s youngest victim.
The now-infamous audience reactions, initially posted to Twitter but soon documented just about everywhere else, ranged from relatively innocuous confusion to anger, disgust and flagrant racism. Many loyal fans were perplexed as they simply “hadn’t imagined” those beloved characters in “that way” and couldn’t remember the corresponding lines of the book; worse, some adamantly insisted that Rue — clearly described as having “dark” and “satiny brown” skin – was actually pale, white and blonde. Cinna, devoid of any specified skin color in Collins’ original, “SHOULD BE WHITE”, as one girl asserted. A few Twitter members were not beyond resorting to racial slurs in expressing their discontent.
The most perturbing of these comments don’t really need or deserve rebuttals. It is, of course, ridiculous to suggest that casting talented young actors of color is in anyway wrong or off-putting. Likewise, outrage is an unreasonable response to a black man portraying a racially ambiguous character. The most unabashed and tasteless of these Twitter posts have generated a virtually universal, negative response. Unfortunately, many of the more subtle issues exposed by this phenomenon run a little deeper.
How did so many passionate fans of “The Hunger Games” skip over a handful of key physical descriptions? How can it possibly be accidental when this occurred consistently and exclusively with non-white characters? I think there are many, many people who innocently skimmed, overlooked or forget the appearances of Rue and Thresh and meant no harm by it, but it is symptomatic of a culture that is not as “post-racial” as it likes to think.
Over 80 percent of major Hollywood roles go to white actors. Mainstream media trains its audience to expect white as the default to the point where exceptions result in raised eyebrows at the very least. Amid the frenzy over the three prominent black actors in the film, another vein of casting criticism has been largely ignored: the potential whitewashing of the protagonist herself. Frequently attributed “olive skin” and distinguished physically from her fairer mother and sister, Katniss Everdeen is arguably a woman of color. Nevertheless the casting call that eventually selected Jennifer Lawrence sought only “Caucasian” actresses, excluding many individuals of other ethnicities that could as if not more effectively meet the requirements of the character. Additionally, despite the apparent (and clearly controversial) diversity of the cast, only white main actors — spoiler alert — survive the film.
The hypocrisy of an online culture simultaneously impassioned about some racial injustices (the case of Trayvon Martin comes to mind) and tolerant of many others (in this case, the problematic undertones of “The Hunger Games” fan community) is disconcerting. If anything, however, the hateful words of a few shameless Tweeters have sparked enough controversy and consternation to initiate a conversation about the role racial prejudice continues to play in 2012.
Clarice Carmichael ’15 contributed to the article.