Characters of color in 'The Hunger Games' are buoys in a sea of whiteness

March 28, 2012

Leaving a screening of The Hunger Games this weekend -- a movie I found mostly fun and enjoyable -- I walked away with a singular thought: The film was unnecessarily overwhelmingly white.

So imagine how stunned I was when I learned that the actual racial controversy with the film is that it’s true to its author’s descriptions of specific characters.

It seems that some of the movie’s fans were surprised -- and, in some cases, turned off -- upon discovering that character Rue and Thresh are black, in spite of the fact that the book clearly describes them as such. Many were also annoyed that Cinna was played by Lenny Kravitz, when author Suzanne Collins had very clearly described him in a race neutral way; in other words, his was a role that could technically be played by an actor of any color.

My complaint? That The Hunger Games was colorblind in the casting of its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, originally described as having “straight black hair” and “olive skin,” and put the excellent blonde-haired/blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence in the role (with her hair dyed), but lacked the nerve to be color-blind in some of its other casting.

Sure, Cinna is black now, but the opportunity was there. Why not colorblind cast more of the other tributes? We hardly get to know them in the movie so it doesn’t really matter what they look like. There’s one Asian tribute in the film...I think; [spoiler alert!] you can catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye in the training scenes, and he’s immediately killed. But why not some of the others? How about Latino or Middle Eastern or even just ambiguously ethnic tributes?

But I’m annoyed about more that: Other than those characters specifically designated as “of color” in the book, the general use of non-white racial characters in The Hunger Games, especially in crowd scenes, is tokenistic and, frankly, insulting.

Hear me out: The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America (more precisely: the U.S.A.). That’s a lot of geography. But that expanse is shrunk dramatically when we look at precisely what kinds of locales the novel encompasses.

The Hunger Games opens up in District 12, an impoverished mining province. Director Gary Ross seems to be using Appalachia as a model. That’s fine -- there’s plenty of mining, poverty and white people in Appalachia. In fact, about 83 percent of the population is white and, according to the U.S. Census, people in Appalachia are generally whiter than the non-Appalachia population in the states that make up the region.

So what’s my beef? Well, then, why bother to sprinkle the District 12 crowd scene with one or two singular minority faces? And the point here is singular: The minority actors stand alone, unconnected, unpartnered, as if each and every one of them is the head of a one-person household. Being so terribly few, wouldn’t they perhaps seek each other out, at the very least at a moment like the Reaping, when a child among them is chosen to be sacrificed?

The movie then moves to the Capitol -- a gleaming futuristic city on the water. Here the population is colorfully decorated, effete, and much better off than in District 12. And yet the racial situation remains the same: The population is overwhelmingly white, with a sprinkling of individual people of color -- mostly blacks and Asians (I couldn’t pick out any Latinos), racial buoys in a sea of whiteness.

What city in North America is this? The actual capital of the U.S., Washington D.C. is only about 31 percent white. New York is 44.6 percent white (and 36 percent of New York is foreign-born, with the top ten contributors being the Dominican Republican, China, Jamaica, Guyana, Mexico, Ecuador, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia and Russia). Los Angeles is 49.8 percent white, Chicago 45 percent, Houston 49 percent and Philadelphia 39 percent.

Those are the top five cities in the U.S. -- and in each and every one of them, whites are a minority. In other words, it might make sense in these cities -- and perhaps in some futuristic version of one of them -- to see groups, families, couples, gaggles of kids of color. (The only kids spotlighted in the Capitol are two white kids, also a very selective rendering of what a multi-racial city would actually look like.)

In fact, in the movie’s one chance to focus on a population of color -- when we see Rue and Thresh’s District 11 -- we're introduced to a citizenry that is still majority white, though noticeably darker. Some folks on fan sites complained that it was disturbing to see the “black” district be the one that erupts in violence. I was floored that District 11 was seen that way by some viewers, given the scarcity of people of color, and even more surprised that the nature of the violence was missed entirely: District 11 is the cradle of the revolution in The Hunger Games.

The use of people of color in The Hunger Games is so deliberate and unnatural -- clearly a strategic integration rather than an organic result -- that it can't help but feel artificial and awkward.