Not Gonna Lie: 'The Hunger Games', Twitter, and Reverse Victimization

Amandla Stenberg

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 an African-American actor, apparently the answer is yes.

The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-03-23 (General release)
UK date: 2012-03-23 (General release)

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games Series #1)

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publication date: 2010-07

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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