Race and The Hunger Games: Stand Down, People

Sadly, race has become an issue in the blockbuster hit “The Hunger Games.” A few fans have tweeted their disappointment that the characters Rue, Thresh, and or Cinna, are black. It’s all the more strange because Rue and Thresh are described as having brown skin in the books.

One misspelled, often printed quote even uses the racial epithet beginning with “n.”

Sad. Disgusting. Wrong.

Still, by my admittedly rough math, some 140,000 people saw “The Hunger Games” last weekend.

There are about ten racist quotes making the rounds on the web, only one that I’ve seen with the racial epithet.

I don’t want to excuse racism. Not at all.

But I ask: Aren’t we focusing on the wrong story? Shouldn’t the headline be: “Of the 140k that saw The Hunger Games, ten are racist?”

Or, “Nation tells the racist .07% of Hunger Games Fans that Racism is Not OK?”

I mean, good grief. If white people as a whole were upset about Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, would the film have made 152.5 million?

Isn’t this outrage snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • http://ticketstubz.blogspot.com Candice Frederick

    well, here’s the thing: race has been an issue with Hunger Games ever since the announcement of the movie. people were concerned about what race Katniss would be, as some feel that Collins indicated that she was a character of color. When that didn’t happen, that too became an issue. Then the outrage of people who hated that cinna and rue were of color. i’m sure this isn’t the only movie that got that kind of heat, but this was a beloved novel. so i think people felt the new to voice. it’s totally inexcusable and, while it may not reflect the majority of the audience, but it reflects far too many. these are only the people who spoke out about it, but i’m sure many more though about it.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for commenting, Candice. That’s interesting that some thought Katniss was a woman of color. I never imagined that. I always pictured her as the movie made her: a descendant of coal-mining whites in the Appalachians. Rednecks, if you will.

      I’m curious, though, who was outraged about Cinna and Rue? I mean, before? When the movie was being cast? I remember being surprised by Lenny Kravitz but mainly because he hasn’t acted much recently and I wasn’t sure if he was a good choice as an actor. I didn’t picture his character as black in the book, but I thought it was a good choice for casting. I don’t remember hearing outrage about it at the time.

      My point is not that it’s ok for people to dislike Rue because she’s black. My point is that someone went to the effort to find a few obscure tweets and then blow them up into a THING. I’m not sure these tweets deserved to be a THING. If they were widespread or from an influential source, yes. But it seems to me to err on the side of creating controversy for controversy’s sake. You’re probably right that every tweet represents more who thought it and didn’t tweet, but I’m not sure that’s a significant number either.

  • mary

    no, people shouldnt stand down.

    anyone that calls these dissapointed fans racists, ARE the racists themselves… jumping down the throats of kids and silencing them for fear of being labeled racist BY RACISTS.. for the horrific crime of have dared to imagined white people.

    its utterly disgusting the ease in wich politically correct racism is dolled out.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      I disagree. I think some of these tweets are just stream of consciousness and relatively innocent, although do reveal a bit of myopic-ness about the source material.

      The worst, however, are blatantly racist. “I didn’t expect that” is ok in my opinion, although kind of dumb. “It ruined the movie” is not. Nor, obviously, using racial slurs.

    • Desirée

      dear mary,

      no one is upset with the readers for imagining the characters as white people when they read the novel (although these characters were NOT described by the author as white). last time i checked, readers everywhere were utilizing their imaginations whilst reading and it wasn’t a crime. besides, i’m sure we’ve all experienced a little surprise at changes that have occurred during the process of a literature-to-film adaptation of a book we enjoyed (My Sister’s Keeper; Evening; Doctor Zhivago; The Lord of the Rings trilogy; The Birds; The Road; Carrie; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Blade Runner; Apocalypse Now; Lolita (Kubrick’s)…and countless others!).

      however, what we are responding to is the viewers’ inability to accept the faithful page-to-screen portrayal of characters (who were described by the author as possessing dark skin) because they cannot connect these positive character traits with dark skin. the outcry against these comments is not directed toward “white skin,” (if that were the case none of us would watch much of Hollywood narrative cinema, LOL). we just want to see that non-white actors can be allowed to portray qualities like bravery or mercy or kindness not just deceit and villainy.

      best wishes!

  • A. Davis

    Despite the fact that I do understand what you are saying, I am glad that attitudes like these are being broadcasted. It represents more of the population than you may think. I dont even think that all of those ignorant ranters were White. The problem when casting a person of color (especially a Black person) in a beloved or potentially beloved role is the fact that most people will find them unrelatable. Even Black people like myself may find it strange when we see a Black person in a role that may have been written for a White person, which most parts are. Depsite the fact that Whites make up most of North America, we are still an extremely diverse country, but one would ever know that by watching tv or films. We all have become so used to seeing people of color in certain roles, that they have turned into caricatures, we cannot picture them as people w/ universal problems. So when those people read the book, and cried/cared for the child, they were able to relate to her. She just couldn’t possibly be Black because most people can’t realistically see Blacks in certain ways (not just White viewers). Its just like what George Lucas was saying about Red Tails, he couldn’t get it funded because people just don’t want to see Black people on screen, not necessarily because they are racist but because we have become complacent w/ the fact that certain roles are reserved for White actors. For example on Netflix there is a section reserved for African American romantic comedies. I look at it and think, ‘Do the other romantic comedies w/ White actors say ‘European American comedies’ ?” No, just romantic comedies. Black people dont love any different but one would think that way because of the manner in which films are produced. I believe that if we had more cinematic diversity, people could potentially become more tolerant. (Stepping down from my Soap Box)

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Well said. And I couldn’t agree more.

      For instance, I loved Queen Latifah in “Last Holiday.” I just thought she was amazing and the character was so real and relatable. Who saw it? No one. I would love to see her in more dramatic roles like that, but I know there are a whole bunch of talented black women like her competing for a few not-so-great roles.

      I don’t know what the answer is but I totally agree with your assessment.

      And I think the stream of consciousness nature of some of these tweets represents that fact. I wouldn’t call it a word so dramatic as racism, though, because I would guess so many of the tweeters weren’t being mean spirited and probably intend to be fair and treat people equally. Do they potentially have a mindset that you described, formed as much by media itself as by their own bias? Sure. Is there a systematic issue? Yes. Should we all point at one fourteen year old who responded to a movie as the heart of the problem? I think that’s overkill.

      Thanks so very much for your thoughtful comment.

  • Desirée

    Rebecca,

    Usually, I look forward to reading your essays with great anticipation. They’re often informative and demonstrate a familiarity with the subject matter in a manner that instills confidence in your perspective.
    However this was not the case today (I know, you win some, you lose some…). But it appears to me, that your analysis of the problem at hand suffers from a form of myopia that has fallen in the trap of focusing “on the wrong story.” Why not explore why this type of casting might have been a problem in the first place? Particularly for members of this youthful demographic, rather than shift attention to those who have responded to the latent racism of these tweets? That’s the real problem.

    Specifically, I find this comment most disappointing: “My point is that someone went to the effort to find a few obscure tweets and then blow them up into a THING.” This statement alone indicates to me that you don’t understand how insidious and dangerous racism is…what it looks like…or the gravity of those “obscure” comments being tweeted by youth and young adults.

    Your unfortunate oversight (& that of one of your readers) also illustrates the need for MORE people to speak up when this sort of thing does occur, if only to make you and others who think like you on this particular subject aware that these comments are not as obscure as one would hope. Racism is NOT about being mean. It’s a belief system that influences the way people think and act. I bet some of those tweeters are actually very nice people and were surprised that their tweets were considered racist!

    Also, please note that racism does not necessarily entail the use of coarse language or racial epithets (which is clearly one of the most obvious indicators) but is an attitude and prejudice that unfairly assigns negative characteristics or traits to a specific people group…and causes the individual or group of individuals possessing this racist mindset to become unable to see those with the “negative traits” in any other light.

    Furthermore, using “statistics” to consider the seriousness of the racist undertones of “a few obscure tweets” does not excuse them. Nor does drawing attention to these racist responses overshadow the film’s release such that people are boycotting it or ignoring the film’s aesthetic or thematic value. There is no risk of that happening. And since when did the content of one’s “stream of consciousness” in a public forum become exempt from evaluation? Personally, I believe that “out of the heart the mouth speaks” and anyone familiar with Twitter knows the ease and immediacy of sharing one’s thoughts (in a medium sans the filtering one encounters in most social situations)…only to face scrutiny & subsequent repercussions (e.g. Anthony Weiner, Octavia Nasr, etc.).

    Finally, let’s be honest about this & not make excuses for “a few obscure tweets.” Let’s call them what they are: latently racist. And, let’s be honest enough to recognize that their comments have struck a chord because they point toward a larger problem regarding public perception of racial representation within American cinema. I’d like to hear your outrage about that.

    Nonetheless, I will still continue to look forward to your posts.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Desiree, that has to be one of the nicest taking me to tasks I’ve ever had and I thank you for it. This is a touchy topic and I appreciate you approaching it with such respect toward me.

      I guess my question is at what point do we attribute unacceptable opinions to the fringe of society (and not worth our notice) and at what point do we say it reflects society?

      We don’t spend a lot of time fretting about the Klu Klux Klan or other white supremacists in popular media because we’ve decided, I think, as a whole that they are crazy and don’t reflect general American attitudes. (This is not to say they’re not dangerous, just that they are way outside the norm and we generally ignore them).

      What you and A. Davis are saying, I think, is that you think the tweets reflect a certain norm that is prevalent throughout white (or at least not African-American) society. I am not excusing the tweets. For the most part, I think they’re racist, although I wonder what a few would look like with some context. But I think the millions of extremely positive tweets that went out last weekend, well, overpower them. For me, as for many, the scene with Rue was the best part of the movie. I cried. I think there are millions who were moved by the beauty of it and only a few that were disturbed by her race.

      I agree with the lack of diversity onscreen. Hollywood chases dollars and they never want to make a choice to chase away a segment of the population. Someone like Will Smith was able to overcome this, but in general, the faces that put butts in seats are white. I agree it’s a problem, although one I’m not at all sure how to fix.

    • marcy

      I would like to thank Desiree for voicing her thoughts with clarity and respect.

      Honestly, this article is frustrating to me. It’s not just about the movies. It’s about the generalizations we make and our own misinterpretations about people who look or act differently from ourselves. Who cares about those specific people — those tweets are disgusting, shameful, and horrible. What matters is that it’s not just those 10 tweeters. Those were from the people who are dumb enough to say out loud what many feel in their hearts, with varying degrees of intensity. I’m a little put off that you don’t voice this in your platform because I think you know that to be true.

      How do we know that this lack of connection, turned racism, is on many hearts?

      Because we have missing black children who receive no media attention — and no outrage from the privledged.

      An innocent boy armed with skittles being tracked down and shot to death followed by a disturbingly sad, slow, corrupted form of justice — and very little outrage from the privledged.

      I could go on and on (and on) about innocent individuals who are treated “less than” because they happened to have been born with dark skin — and little outrage from the privledged.

      You point out and I’d agree, that as a whole, we do dismiss the KKK for being crazy and ignore them (though perhaps that’s easy for us non-black skinned individuals to throw that comment out there), regardless, there’s another harmful form of prejudice that is VERY much present, even when not explicit and intentional. As Christians, we need to do be the ones leading the charge to identify it, understand it and fight against it in ourselves, our families, churches, community, schools, work, etc.

      Trust me, it’s not the white, Christian crowd that needs to be told to “stand down” on racial issues. I’d say that’s our default…to a fault. Maybe that’s why this article was frustrating to me. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful or argumentative; after reading some comments, I felt like the real issue was being missed.

      • marcy

        Haha — I just realized that this entire site IS devoted to movies…so I get the emphasis. :) My bad. I came over from a link and just read the article and comments.

  • regular joe

    Huh. I’d say the issue is just the opposite of A. Davis’s assessment. I’d say that too many movies self conciously put people of color in roles clearly suited for uncolored people to self conciously check diversity boxes and PC compliance dogma. We live in a highly segregated society, that deals with its much hailed Diversity by quietly dividing into very separate groups residentially and socially, as any realistic view of human nature would predict. That plain fact doesn’t fit the reigning creation myth of our society, so Hollywood constantly feeds us the usual rainbow spectrum to create the illusion of Diversity demanded by the prevailing structure of taboos. Its the odd forcing and unreality that this results in which is wierd, not the reverse. And the reason there is a separate Black category for romance and comedy etc is simple, blacks in fact have a separate sub culture, with a distinct set of norms and tastes, and prefer to see movies where this is reflected, and most of the characters are black. Its called a Niche Market. Wondering at this is a little like wondering why we have Vietnamese groceries, and why Giant isn’t called a White Grocery, and don’t we all just eat food anyway? Er, no.

    As to whether whosehisface in HG should be of non-European decent, no opinion, haven’t read the books. But if they’d cast a Mexican or Nigerian or even blonde California surfer as Harry Potter, most English of English characters, and no a black Jamaican descended British citizen wouldn’t count, I’d have been shocked, and thought it ruined the movie. Many roles are ethnically specific.

    • A. Davis

      These so called “niches” for the Black community are often stereotypical. The Black population is not a sub-culture. Why can’t we have movies like The Notebook ? I relate to that much more than a Tyler Perry love story. Plus, I really don’t know of these “distinct set of norms and tastes” that you speak of. We’re Americans just like everyone else. 100 years ago, they would be saying this about the Italians. ‘Italians Americans (Robert Dinero) need their own movies because they are different from us<— the dominant culture". The real reason for the "Black fims" "Black magazines" etc. is because people got tired of not being included so they had to make their own….

      • Rebecca Cusey

        If this was Facebook, I would like your post. This way I have to type way more to express the same thing.

        Conversely, I often find myself wishing white people would watch Tyler Perry, especially white people of faith. If they could get past the racial differences, they’d see a lot they could relate to there.

        • A. Davis

          Actually you’re right. My Tyler Perry comment came off negative. I’ve liked most of his stuff and he does attempt to give people of color more options in film. I suppose that I should have cited films like the Friday franchise and those other ‘D’ movies that have foods like ‘fried chicken’ in the title.


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