“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.
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.
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.
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.