Unassailable fact: The Hunger Games is a success story. It’s official opening weekend haul of $152. 5 million makes that point abundantly clear. But amid the glory talk that saw The Hunger Games enter the history books as the third-highest box-office debut for a non-sequel, beating Spider-Man ($ 151.1 million), The Twilight Saga’s New Moon and Breaking Dawn Part 1 ($142.8 million and $138.1 million) – shockingly, the ugly spectre of racism also reared its head.
Based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy, THG tells the story of a dystopian world where teenagers and minors are forced to fight to the death in what’s called, appropriately enough, ‘The Hunger Games.’ Three of the actors in the film – Lenny Kravitz, who plays Cinna, Amandla Strenberg, playing Rue, and Dayo Okeniyi, aka Thresh – recently became the focus of a disturbing number of tweets by a proportion of fans either furious and/or confused as to why these three characters were played by actual Black people.
This, despite the fact that Suzanne Collins described Rue as having dark skin. Specifically, page 45 of the first book describes Rue (from Katniss’s point of view) as ” … a twelve year old from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor.” Similarly, Thresh was written as having, “the same dark skin as Rue …” while Cinna’s physical atttributes stated he had, “green eyes with gold eye-liner,” and “short cropped brown hair.”
For those tweeting racist comments, Katniss’s reference to her sister Prim meant Rue’s similarity couldn’t possibly mean her size, the way she acted, moved or her personality. It had to mean the most obvious trait – color. Similarly Collins’s clear detailing of Thresh was ignored. While Cinna is not identified as dark-skinned in the books, Kravitz does in fact fulfil the other characteristics Collins gave him. Interestingly, this is more than can be said for the film’s female lead Jennifer Lawrence. In the books Katniss is described as having “olive skin,” “long black hair” and “gray eyes.”
But who are we kidding? The outrage expressed on Twitter – mostly racist, profane, or simply woefully stupid – isn’t about rationality or “sticking to the book.” It’s about the anger of people, achingly young people, who have discovered that what they imagined when they read Collin’s books, didn’t correspond to the reality of the movie. So what reality are these young people living in? One where black people never enter their daily lives, or perhaps one where black people can only exist in stereotype as “bad guys” and “sassy good-time gals”?
Unfortunately, these reactions are part of the reason why fashion houses and Hollywood has, for decades, bowed to the seldom-spoken-out-loud belief, that magazine covers featuring darker skinned people, or films starring Black leads (in non-Black films), don’t sell big in a white market. Beyonce on the cover of Italian Vogue doesn’t mean things are changing. Celebrity still trumps the the real life of working models and actors. So do the recent tweets archived by a THG fan (all twenty pages of them), mean this belief isn’t such a myth after all? And just how concerned should we be that nearly all those tweeting about THG casting were young adults?
Very. The rage and illogicality expressed in many of these tweets are the real feelings of the next generation’s future teachers, law-enforcement officers, doctors and ordinary, voting citizens of tomorrow. Caught up in the same ideological quagmire of America’s brutal racial past as many of their elders, the message these tweets carry is more than just disappointing – it’s horrifying. More than that, they are the bed in which the context of Trayvon Martin’s killing makes perfect, but horrendous, non-sense. One only has to take a look at some of the tweets to see how deep the sickness goes.
Yes, this is a real tweet:
You read that correctly. She said “ruined.”
And then , there was this:
Non-sweet and to the point. For this tweeter, the problem is nothing to with characterization, but is simply the “unbearable Blackness” of Amandla Sternberg.
Dodai Stewart in Jezebel notes, “… one person writes that though he pictured Rue with ‘darker skin,’ he ‘didn’t really take it all the way to black.’ It’s as if that is the worst possible thing a person could be.”
Rama Screen, referring to those complaining, quipped, “So … they’re ok with Robert Downey Jr. playing a black dude, but they get all upset over this!” Good point. In 2008, critics couldn’t throw enough praise at Downey for his portrayal of a white-Australian-method-actor-portraying-a-black-actor-making-a-film-in-Vietnam (still with me?) Is the age of the target market for films the key then? Ben Stiller’s film Tropic Thunder was simultaneously marketed to both young adults (18- 34) and older audiences. Because of this, the irony of Downey’s performance wasn’t lost.
However, this point about age doesn’t hold when one considers the similarly toned backlash that greeted the recent Shorty Award win by online show – The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Many of those tweeting racist reactions to that win were old enough to know better – and then some. The sheer glee in many of those tweets, a sign that racism far from skulking underground in online forums and secret societies, is very much out, loud and proud. Their number may well be a minority, but they’re a highly vocal minority.
The UK’s Guardian remarked that, “In recent years, there has been varying levels of dissent around the casting of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) as the Doctor’s companion [Doctor Who], a black Queen Guinevere (Angel Coulby) in [the] BBC’s Merlin, and Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Every so often there’s uproar about the (still-yet-to-happen) possibility of a black Bond.”
So, it seems racist tweeters aren’t even original. Small comfort for the actors subjected to ridiculous questioning of their right to be cast in roles. And what of the wider message to non-white children witnessing these needless debates? Don’t get ideas above your station. Sounds pretty accurate.
Strangely, the same people recently ranting on Twitter had very little to say when three of the four leads in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film, The Last Airbender were given to white actors, even though they were written as Asian or Native American. Examples of Hollywood’s tendency to do this are too numerous to mention. Cleopatra anyone?
So where do we go from here? Hiding from racism doesn’t work. Neither does “hating” the perpetrators. We have to keep talking, keep exposing, keep recognizing the glorious richness inherent in other cultures, and for that matter, every culture. Because even if only person listens, that’s one less who’ll take to Twitter and remind us that idealism doesn’t only belong to the young.