[5 April 2012]
Would it matter at all if Katniss Everdeen, a white teenager in the book The Hunger Games, had been portrayed in the film by a suitably teenage and female, black actor?
For the young racists who have gone berserk on Twitter about the supporting character Rue being portrayed by the African-American actor Amandla Stenberg, apparently the answer is yes. Rue is a young, hopeful girl caught up in a ritualistic, reality TV game of teen-on-teen blood sport which gives the novel and film their names, and she is clearly described the first time Katniss sees her as having “dark brown skin and eyes”.
The responses to her casting range from the mildly offensive to the outright disgusting, typified by the glib hatred of this now infamous post from someone identifying herself as Maggie Mcdonnell: “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie”. (I would include [sic] but really, what’s the point?) Other tweets took offense at the black young man portraying Thresh—who is from Rue’s district and is described, again, in the book as having skin tone similar to hers—and at Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the stylist whose designs help the book and film’s protagonist win crucial favor from sponsors. Of the three, Cinna’s ethnicity is most vague. If you’re asking yourself why that matters, good.
Apparently it mattered to @JashperParas, who wrote: “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad”.
Okay, kid. When you are unmoved by the murder of a young child hopelessly out of her league in these horrific games due to her size, her youth, and her goodness—a child who commits the first act of genuine friendship and real alliance in the course of the games, and whose goodness is not only an act of resistance but becomes a rallying cry for the hero and thousands watching the games—then yes, you’re a racist.
Who are these young racists? After our initial surprise and dismay and revulsion, what do we make of this?
What racism spits in the wind flies back in its face; historically, while millions of American racists have received little or no physical, economic or socio-political rebuke for their words and actions, their hatred, I believe, has made their lives smaller, a consequence admittedly and frustratingly limited. In the wake of these particular eruptions, the young people were chastised enough that most of them shut down their accounts, and they have been bronzed in cultural infamy by a Tumblr site called Hunger Games Tweets and countless articles. Teachers, parents, friends who know these hip racists and feel compelled to educate them will have to weigh their duty against reciprocal feelings of disgust and dismay.
From a cultural criticism point of view, though, I’m not sure how much weight to assign to the idiotic ramblings of a small high school’s worth of ignorant teenagers. There’s a tendency to figure that every post made represents x-number of posts unmade, that for every @JashperParas there are, what, ten, 100, 1,000 more young racists like him. Is this cause to bemoan the ignorance of all millennials, as Anna Holmes did in The New Yorker when she decried, based on the 200 examples on Hunger Games Tweets, “a certain generation’s failure of imagination”?
Panning an entire generation seems like a failure of imagination, too, and worse, it’s unhelpful. Age is not the cause of this racism; there are any number of older, privileged individuals who would have had the same reaction if they’d read the book and seen the movie. A lack of education, a pervasive social division of race, ethnicity and class, a continued conscious and unconscious campaign against “others” in media and politics—these are some of the causes of racism.
Likewise, it’s a mistake to pin the blame simply on the poor reading comprehension of the young racists, which only perpetuates the mistaken stereotype that racism comes from an intellectual deficiency or laziness. These certainly don’t help matters, but the history of racism in America is filled with well-read, articulate, perceptive, college-educated men and women, mainly white, who possessed heinous, nauseating ideas about non-whites and constructed the notion of race to support those ideas. They read comprehensively, saw what they wanted to see and manipulated it consciously or unconsciously to suit their goals which were normally social, political and economic in nature. If we want to pretend racist readers are simply uneducated, then how do we explain the historically recurrent racism of American political leaders, judges, scientists and, yes, authors.
So before we all climb up on our thrones to proclaim the failures of these young racists’ reading skills, let’s consider that perhaps they have read exactly as they have been taught to do: from a white-centric point of view. Which means that we non-millennials taught them. For more than two centuries, and as Holmes’ sources point out in her article, the symbol of innocence has been taught as “white” in opposition to “black” symbols of guilt in the sense of fault, culpability, and so on. The former depends on the latter. Toni Morrison documented this construction and others related to American literature superbly in her book Playing in the Dark, wherein she writes:
…the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of pexplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this. (17)
Indeed, that hard work is done through education in the art of unseeing, of overlooking, of filling perceived gaps with white and performing erasures of blackness through literary interpretation. Taught to perform these tasks as they read, for instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in collusion with educators too timid or lazy to engage in a robust discussion of that novel’s complex racial discourse, these young racists have learned that avoidance of race signals the truthfulness of racial distinctions. In other words, if talking about it is painful, then race must be naturally real instead of a fabrication for the sake of power.
Amandla Stenberg as Rue
Intentionally or not, Collins does no favors in the book by including so few descriptions of any characters not named Katniss or Peeta. A casualty of the novel’s brisk pace, the limits of Collins’ writing, her choice of narrative point of view, and the way she approaches her audience, the book’s description is mainly reserved for its principle characters, action sequences, and the Terrordome of the Games’ woodland façade arena. While commentators have rightly pointed out that Rue is described clearly, reading is not purely an information-gathering act where each word is consumed by the reader equally. In a novel, repetitions and placement in sentence, paragraph and chapter, along with dialogue, action, and thought, create emphasis. If it was important that we see Rue as an African-American girl (to the extent that there is an America anymore in this dystopian novel), then Collins probably ought to have described her ethnicity more often.
Maybe Collins was practicing a kind of benevolent liberal colorblindness. If anything, the reactions of these young twits might demonstrate the failure of that ideology—think of Stephen Colbert’s satirical declarations that he “doesn’t see race”—and suggest the need to promote the recognition and equal appreciation of all colors.
Regardless, the words are there. If Collins left a certain blank by not reinforcing a character’s skin color at various points in the book, what’s troubling is not only that a reader would fill it in with white, but that the reader would object so strenuously—and with feigned or real victimization—to the blank being filled in with any other color.
Prose fiction is translation from word to sense; film is image and sound, and its strength and allure begin with its visceral, unmistakable, sensory impact. It creates a singular reality. We can see only one Rue instead of the one we may have created in our minds—or left somewhat blank—as we read the novel.
Being forced to see one Rue and only one Rue embodied, literally, in the film is what I think so upsets these young racists. This is not simply a case of the movie failing to match up with how the reader imagined the book. For these young and mainly white individuals—so far as we can tell from their profiles before they disappeared—whiteness is the center of their world, which extends to aesthetic privilege. Ignorant of reality, they would come to any book, any movie, with a sense that the world is made according to their understanding, in their image. And if it isn’t, well, why not?
Beginning with its first image, any film revokes any sense of privilege we may have, especially if it’s an adaptation of a book we have read. Although we occasionally say, “That’s just how I pictured it,” in likelihood, if we really think about it, we pictured something at least slightly different. A film, like any piece of art, persuades us to see it on its own terms, and in the case of adaptations, a negotiation occurs. You saw Gandalf this way, but this is how we see Gandalf, and my God, isn’t Ian McKellen a superb actor, not just true to what we imagined but an authoritative new imagining—and you forget, for at least the film’s duration, about then and sink into now.
The casting of Rue with an African-American actor revoked these young racists’ sense of white entitlement. It may come as a surprise to certain prominent Republicans that such a thing exists, be it Rick Santorum, who said earlier this year, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money” and then tried to claim, infamously, that he said “blah people” (Video: Santorum singles out Blacks for entitlement reform); or Karl Rove, who recently co-opted the actual racist pressure applied to the NAACP in the 1950s and applied it to his clientele of billionaire super-PACs (Video: Rove Compares Attacks On American Crossroads to NAACP Struggles.)
Specifically, the film forced them to confront the assertion that innocence can be black. When Amandla Stenberg first appears on screen in the Hunger Games training center, she captures Rue entirely, and not just her innocence—her charm, her frailty, her courage. When she asks Katniss in the arena if the story of the older teen’s star-crossed romance with Peeta is true, there is more going on in Stenberg’s beautiful face and eyes and smile than you will find in a long list of Hollywood actors. For that moment she’s a little girl who has managed to step out of the insane, bewildering chaos of the Hunger Games; her eyes glint, her eyebrows arch for a second at the prospect of harmless gossip, and her smile is impossibly wide and happy until the reality of where she’s at, and what she’s supposed to do, subdues her. It’s one of the most casually humane moments in the entire film.
For these young racists, a sense of superiority over art and person, or people—a sense of ownership—has been confronted and destroyed, because there is no way for them to wish away what they have seen; the film is brighter, louder, and larger than they are. Maybe this has something to do with the secluded, masturbatory characteristics of the Internet and its effect on younger people, but let’s not act like this reaction is new. What surprise there is comes from the fact that their idiotic explosions on Twitter sound so old.
Their sense of innocence is a mirror; because Rue is innocent and good, and because they want to see the same qualities in themselves, Rue must be white like them. Through literature and countless other kinds of discourse, their understanding of white innocence is built on a villainous opposite who, when push comes to shove, is ultimately non-white. Portrayed by Stenberg, the film’s Rue (and of course, in truth, the book’s Rue) challenged their perception not just of innocence in general, but of their own innocence. What had been comfortably private was made public by the film. There they were, in the dark theater, with their friends, and—Rue is black? Subconscious ideas were drawn like poison out of the skin and exposed as poison. They were forced to see their own racism—not the racism of those comfortably dead in the 19th century, or the ‘20s, or the ‘50s, but now—especially because the rest of the people watching the film didn’t rise up and burn down the screen.
Sometimes I think we’re never so angry as when we know we’re wrong. Shamed publicly, though in the private fashion of art, these young racists injected that poison back into their bloodstream and bared their fangs publicly in the contemporary custom. Which is to say, in public. Maybe they had little idea, genuinely, that their reactions were racist. If they knew—and some clearly did—they didn’t care. That’s privilege for you.
It’s tempting to say that if Katniss had been portrayed by a black female actor, these same young racists would have barely been able to contain themselves, that their rage would have been magnified by her importance as the protagonist. But I wonder if such a bold move would have signaled to them a social lesson, an ideological point, which they would have felt compelled to submit to, at least publicly. It would have provided them with an opportunity to perform as a tolerant individual.
Which leads me to think that it’s not only important that Rue is an innocent character, but also a supporting character who is a victim. Already on the margins of the story as they perceive it—in fact, she’s central to Katniss’ refusal to play by the game’s standards and her death is ultimately what propels rebellion against The Hunger Games’ totalitarian government—Rue’s innocence apparently provides greater opportunity for identification, for ownership, and for domination. To them, it must seem dangerous to confront Katniss, but certainly not the relatively weak Rue, which suggests that these young racists see themselves as weak. As victims.
Racists are ultimately cowards who have been taught to fear their own shortcomings in a level playing field—industrial, professional, artistic—and who rely on a fraudulent sense of victimization to justify the creation and maintenance of prejudicial, unequal systems of power. This is not groundbreaking news; as legal and political equality has increased for minorities—with still much work to be done—claims of “reverse discrimination” have increased, too. So while it’s perhaps ludicrous to see it expressed, albeit unspoken, in missives from teens who not only have the time and technology to comment on Twitter, but the economic means to see The Hunger Games the instant it came out, maybe it’s not surprising that these young racists have communicated a belief that there’s room for only one ‘victim’ in this world: them.