I don’t have to know anything about the Hunger Games to know that it’s leaving its mark on American culture in some huge ways. This weekend, the movie made the third highest-grossing debut in North American box office history raking in $155 million. It’s also exposed something we knew was true about black men, women, and children in real-life but apparently also carries over into fictional cinema—we cannot be innocent, good, or cared about instinctively.
I know nothing about Suzanne Collins’ novel except for the fact that the book has cultivated a Twilight-Harry Potter-cultish-like following of which my little cousin is a part of. As is expected with diehard fans, there are going to be indiscrepancies between the way they visualized things in the book and how they are portrayed on film, but I don’t think anyone expected so much outrage over the character of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, a biracial black girl.
Call me crazy, but if I’d read page 45 of the novel and saw this sole description of Rue, Amandla is exactly who I would have expected to see on screen:
“…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…”
Apparently for “Hunger Games” readers, dark brown is like the “I’m the same color as you” comments I get from white people during the summer when they come back from an island vacation and think we’re skin twins. They thought Rue would be a dark-skinned white person, and to say they were disappointed that Rue was played by a black girl would be an understatement. The Tumblr Hunger Game Tweets, set up to expose people who talk a bunch of ish but aren’t really fans of the book, as evidenced by their lack of knowledge, caught a startling number of angry responses to Amandla’s character that weren’t just about being shocked that she was black, but more so her blackness changing their entire opinion of the character and the movie. Tweets ranged from:
“Why does Rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” to
“I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue” to
“Kk call me racist but when I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad. #Ihatemyself” to
“Sense when has rue been a n***er” I don’t even have time to go into all that is wrong with that statement.
The viewers weren’t too thrilled about Lenny Kravitz playing Cinna either, although since his dark skin wasn’t mentioned in the book, they weren’t totally blindsided into liking a black person. As for another character named Thresh, there apparently was no clue he’d be black either, despite this description: “The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox.”
Another tweeter sent this reaction on the collective inclusion of black characters:
“Cinna and Rue weren’t supposed to be black. Why did the producers make all the good characters black smh”
The most ironic twist in all this discussion is when it comes to the lead character Katniss no one has said a word. That’s most likely because the producers cast a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl by the name of Jennifer Lawrence as a character that was described in the book as having olive skin and straight black hair. To their credit, they did manage to dye her hair dark— it all sort of reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor and Angelina Jolie playing Cleopatra. The lack of outrage over that change proves this argument is not about incongruences, it’s about the inability for black people to be seen as anything but villains in real life and in cinema.
What’s worse is we talk day in and day out about how we need to change the images on the screen. We need more positive images of black people, we need to be seen in leading roles, but will it make a difference? If we’re talking about black films the people who need to see these images likely won’t even bother to watch the movies. And in this case we see that having positive images didn’t challenge any of the viewers internalized ideals about black people, it simply made them view the portrayals as unrealistic, even making them angry that they had somehow been tricked to care about a little black girl when they didn’t think she was a little black girl. If we can’t soften the youth when it comes to stereotypes and prejudices about black people through an entertainment medium of all things, what can we possibly do that will make a difference?
Since buzzfeed and other sites have run stories about these fans’ racist reactions to the film, Hunger Games Tweets has proudly reported that the number of tweets about Rue and Thresh being black has greatly reduced, but I wouldn’t count that as a victory just yet. I’m willing to bet those people have only stopped commenting because they don’t want to see their twitter accounts blasted across the Internet. No one has had a sudden change of heart about the audacity of movie producers invoking sympathy for a black character. Of course, the fans’ reactions aren’t totally startling considering all that’s going on around us in black America today, but to say they’re disturbing, yet sadly, somewhat expected, would be an understatement.
Are you familiar with The Hunger Games at all? Do you think having more positive images of black characters in films is really the answer in situations like this?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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