Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time. I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught. I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue. Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family. I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was. (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.) In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black. When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?
I had reason to wonder. A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy. Well sort of. Here’s the true story. My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing. Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept. Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told. His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine. When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book. He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age. (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)
Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun. (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!) I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart. But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:
“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?” Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma? I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard. But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child! Or That’s my children’s favorite book! Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white. What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.
I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games. Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown. I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss). But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.
And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes? (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee . Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.) Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be? What went into the decision to make her white? Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice? Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway. What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue. That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.
It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it. For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial. She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother. I loved that no one mentioned race in the film. It was just there, and no big deal. Is that reality–race being no big deal? No, but what a wonderful wish. If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?
I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games). In a television show called Flashforward, which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman. Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed. It was no big deal, which I loved. I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal. (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)
We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons, a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple. For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)
But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black. Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.” Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white? Not true, not true!)
When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way. That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died. (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.) I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit. But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh. (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!) It should be no big deal. Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them? I really hope not.