Books on Film: Racist Hunger Games Fans Don’t Know How to Read

It's a good thing they didn't cast anyone sweet, adorable and innocent. Her death would have been a real bummer.

“HOW IN THE WORLD ARE THEY GOING TO MAKE RUE A FREAKIN BLACK BITCH IN THE MOVIE ?!?!?!??!”

Eww. Rue is black. I’m not watching.”

“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you pictured”

The quotes above are an extreme, yet sadly accurate, representation of some of the outraged, disappointed, or just confused reactions coming out of some Hunger Games fans this past week.

The source of the issue is the girl above — Amandla Stenberg (no, that’s not a typo) — being cast as “Rue,” the Tribute from District 11 that Katniss befriends during the Games. While some fans were just surprised that a black girl had been cast in what they thought was a white role, others argued that her race in the movie made her death less tragic or that it simply wasn’t the character they had imagined, and thus the role was tainted.

The trouble is that Suzanne Collins was fairly clear that Rue was black, or at least was certainly not a blue-eyed blonde, but lazy readers skipped over the vital descriptions of Rue — including the fact that she had “dark brown skin and eyes” and was from a district that essentially was made to sound like a Plantation with slave labor conditions and “Masters” — and just focused on the one scene where Katniss says that apart from all of these differentiating features, she was “very much” like Primrose, Katniss’s blonde sister. Apparently that was all racially insensitive or mildly illiterate fans needed to glaze over the much more specific descriptions of the character’s appearance and living conditions.

Stenberg released a comment vaguely alluding to the outrage, but just stated how happy she was to be included in the project and thanked her supportive fans.

While not nearly as widespread, there was some similar disgust or despair over Cinna — Katniss’s stylist — being played by noted black man Lenny Kravitz. In the book, Cinna’s race is never mentioned and his descriptions focus more on his personality or his trademark is a sweep of gold eyeliner than anything more specific about his physical appearance. So the role was wide open to whoever casting directors thought would be the best fit. And Kravitz did an amazing job. As did Stenberg — but then the vitriolic statements above wouldn’t somehow be more legitimate if both actors had bombed.

I can't imagine how fans would have reacted if they'd ruined everything with silver eyeliner.

Instead, this whole debate, as disheartening and unfortunate as it is, does lend itself to an interesting discussion on the importance of character descriptions.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, for instance, J.K. Rowling was always very specific when it came to “other” races. You weren’t told that Harry or Ron or Hermione were white (although Ron’s red hair and freckles didn’t leave much wiggle room), but Lee Jordan is described as a black kid with dreadlocks and Angelina Johnson is a “tall, attractive black witch with long dark hair that she usually wore in braids.” The Patil twins are East-Indian, Cho Chang is Chinese, Kingsley Shacklebolt is black, etc. While Rowling was reinforcing the idea of the “white norm” — ie. that characters are presumed white until proven otherwise — on the other hand, her specificity left no room for confusion and made it clear that Hogwarts was a somewhat racially diverse school, which could theoretically be commended.

And Sirius, of course.

Collins, however, is in a trickier spot. We know that the world of the Hunger Games is at least 75 years in the future, but almost certainly more than that. The author has stated in interviews that she does envision the future North America (redubbed “Panem”) as being much more racially “mixed,” and it would be hard to call any of the characters African-American, given that America doesn’t exist anymore. More than that, if there has been a great deal more race mixing, what would “black” even mean? How would we define race?

Many readers were furious that Katniss — described as having long straight dark hair and olive skin — was played by the unambiguously white Jennifer Lawrence when Katniss’s description did leave room for interpretation as to whether she was part Italian or Latina or East Indian or Native or anything else. Sure, she had a blonde sister and Mother, but genetics are a funny thing. Ditto Gale (who shares Katniss’s coloring) and the somewhat disparate casting of  sun-kissed Australian sufer, Liam Hemsworth. Both actors were subjected to dark hair dye but their skin remained decisively pale.

Hemsworth, Lawrence and Hutcherson: A rainbow of diversity.

Is it possible that casting directors were happy to put African-American actors in lesser roles, but wanted to make sure that the three leads (including Josh Hutcherson) remained white to appeal to the widest possible audience, or did they just choose the right people for the right parts across the board? It’s tough to know for sure, but this is definitely a debate that will continue well into the next movie.

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31 thoughts on “Books on Film: Racist Hunger Games Fans Don’t Know How to Read

  1. I loved the girl who played Rue. She has that sweet innocent demeanor about her that Suzanne describes in the book. My only complaint is that we didn’t get enough Katniss and Rue time. I felt that their connection was underdeveloped in the movie. But loved the movie all around.

    • I remembered thinking that in the book as well, though, to be fair. I think it’s easy in a book to say, “Then we hung out for a couple of days and became the best of friends,” than to establish it on screen.

  2. Great post. I have yet to see the Hunger Games (I will today), so I have not been able to make an opinion as to the actors and actresses.

    I admit that I must have read over the color of Rue’s skin and hair color, but seeing that picture of Amandla Stenberg sitting there in forget-me-not blue, how could she not fit the role of Rue? She looks just perfect.

    • Let me know what you think of it.

      I can’t say I was disappointed, but on reflection the movie has left me pretty cold. I thought it was adequate, but it never reached the scale that I really wanted from it. I had that complaint about the book as well, though, to be fair.

      • I thought the movie was not bad. Okay, it’s a little bit better than not bad, but I’m comparing it to the book. Movies based on books always run that risk. I really liked the books. At first, i thought it was because I had low expectations, but on further reflection, I decided that I liked them for what they were.

        If I hadn’t read the books, I think I would have liked the movie a bit better. It had lots of action, which is fine and dandy, but it left out a lot of the tensions and relationships that the book brought forth.

        I have no quarrel with the casting, except, maybe just a teensy bit with regard to the choice of Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth. I don’t think they were awful, I just wasn’t convinced or moved in any way. Overall, it wasn’t bad. 🙂

      • I thought Hemsworth was a block of wood, but then he didn’t have much to do.

        I like Jennifer Lawrence a lot, so I was biased — plus I felt Katniss was a little tough to get a feel on in the book. She’s moody, tomboyish and closed-off, even when she’s the narrator. So that’s a tall order for an actor.

  3. Gary Dourdan always comes to mind anyway for me when I hear Lenny K.’s name. (I ❤ Warrick). Also, I know what happened to CInna (well, as much as anyone else who read the second and third books) but I don't wanna post it and spoil it for others. :/

    • As I said above (or below), I think ultimately people see what they want to see. It’s been an unfortunate truth for years that missing white children get far more attention, support and sympathy than missing black children. I think there’s a segment of the population that literally views the death (or abduction) of a black child as less sad or tragic. Even in fiction, it would seem.

  4. I read an article on these comments last week and was outraged. First off, if you’re going to complain – definitely know what you’re complaining about and if you’re correct about it. I ALWAYS pictured Cinna as a black man even though he was never given a skin tone by Collins and I was quite happy with the Lenny casting. He was perfect, he may have been my favorite person in that entire movie. Secondly, the girl who plays Rue was perfection as well. She was so sweet, so adorable, and perfectly quaint as she should be as well as the other District 11 tribute looking buff and tough. People are ridiculous and the above comment is right – they just want something to hate. It’s horrible. People are stupid.

    • Yeah, Lenny was great. I don’t know if I pictured Cinna as black (it’s always hard to remember how you picture someone after you’ve seen the movie — a part of me wishes I’d never seen the Harry Potter films because Emma Watson’s Hermione has forever tained my view of the character, end bracket ramble), but I did picture him as “swarthier.” Possibly Italian or Middle-Eastern. But Lenny was absolutely perfect. He really understood the character — they all did.

      What disgusts me more is not the comments people made, but the glee with which they made them. This was a joke, it was funny, it was an “aww gosh, am I a silly old racist?!” How anyone could make a racist comment and think they’re being cute is beyond me.

      • You’re right – you’re so right, they did feel silly. It’s like the girls who watched Chris Brown’s grammy performance and said on twitter “I would let Chris Brown beat me anytime if he kissed me afterwards.” That isn’t cute at all. And being racist, or dumb isn’t cute. Why is that young adult women now a days are trying to be cute by playing dumb, it’s like you win affection by being a dumb blonde. BLEH.

        You’re right about Harry Potter. That’s why I refuse to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because I’m scared the movie ruins it.

      • I had someone say that to me in-person (re: the Chris Brown thing) and I had no idea how to react. I wanted to give her a firm shake, but it didn’t seem appropriate in the moment.

        But yeah, the perpetual teenager — especially from women who are nearing or in their forties — needs to stop. It’s not cute, it’s not funny, it’s just sad.

        I will never forgive Emma Watson. NEVER.

        Nah, she’s okay. She just wasn’t my Hermione.

  5. QUOTE: ” it would be hard to call any of the characters African-American, given that America doesn’t exist anymore. More than that, if there has been a great deal more race mixing, what would “black” even mean? How would we define race?”

    this just proves that no matter what an author does, SOMEONE will find a reason to be pissed. So Rowling reinforced the white norm, and Collins was too ambiguous (maybe wishing to downplay race as a factor at all)? Also, I must be one of those “lazy readers” because I didn’t pay much attention to Rue’s description at all… o.O Oh, well, I’m sure someone on Twitter can find a reason to be mad about that too. LOL As it is, I enjoyed the novels and I look forward to seeing the film (and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch- was there ever a better casting decision made?!)

    • To be be perfectly fair, I didn’t know Rue was black in the books, but when she was cast, my first reaction was: “Oh, yeah — I’m an idiot.”

      I think that Suzanne Collins overestimated her audience’s maturity and was probably trying to downplay race, hence the reference to skin colors but without a clear idea of specific racial categories. What I loved about Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz is that they both took characters and, while they may have loooked a little different from how I’d imagined in the books, the second they came onscreen they were the characters. There’s something so much more interesting and exciting about an actor who nails a part, even when they don’t seem 100% perfect for the role and manage to completely convince you.

      With that said, I was kind of alarmed at how much Josh Hutcherson looked and acted like “my” Peeta.

      • Woody Harrelson has always had great roles and he’s made them even greater (Natural Born Killers and Zombieland!) I did not know Lenny Kravitz was an actor as well as musician. I think he’d be pretty cool as Cinna (who I was truly hoping would pop up again at the end of Mockingjay.)
        As to Collins overestimation of her audience’s maturity, it’s funny you mention that, because I thought the exact opposite about the first novel because of the ridiculously juvenile inner monologue with Katniss. She was hard to relate to because she had such typically teenaged thoughts at times.

      • I still haven’t seen either Natural Born Killers or Zombieland, which is ridiculous because they’ve been on my Must See list forever.

        I think this is Lenny’s second-ever role, the first was in Precious (which I also didn’t see).

        Collins’s removal of Cinna, while poignant and all, was really frustrating. Should we assume he’s dead? Probably, but I’d like to know for sure.

        What I liked about the way Collins wrote Katniss was that she really was a normal tomboy, even with all of the pressures put on her. It made it hard to relate, as a then-23-year-old reading the books, but if I really stretch my memory back to my teen years, she was pretty accurate.

      • I agree with you… Peeta was EXACTLY how I’d imagined him to be, same as Rue. How can anybody be mislead by “Dark brown skin and eyes”? Duh. Personally, I only missed Cinna’s green eyes, but After watching Lenny Kravitz, I couldn’t care less. And Woddy Harrelson is just brilliant!!

      • I was a little weirded out by how perfect the casting of Josh Hutcherson was. Rue was great, but ultimately people see what they want to see. I think a lot of people liked the image of a sweet little blonde girl dying in Katniss’s arms, so that’s what they pictured.

        Because of the green eyes, I was picturing more of a Gary Dourdan, but definitely someone “swarthier” for some reason. Someone said they pictured Cillian Murphy, which would have been a huge mistake, in my opinion. But then I do love Cillian.

        I feel bad for not mentioning Harrelson. The thumbs-up he gave Katniss after the pig stunt was great.

      • Gary Dourdan, of course!! But nah… Kravitz really nailed it. Plus, although he’s oloder than Cinna would probably be, he looks young, yet wise. Loved him. Cillian is a great actor, but we would have a hard time believing he’s actually good and not set on burning Katniss… lol… as for Rue, you know what I remembered? Did you see “A Time to kill”, the final defender’s speech? how everyone felt horrible for the girl, and they all imagined her to be white, until they realized she was black… People can be really stupid sometimes.

      • My bad, everyone thought about the black girl, until the lawyer says “now Imagine she’s white”… and suddenly everyone realizes that they would have been outraged at a white girl being raped… goosebumps.

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