This marks the second editorial this month discussing race in the movies. Last week Lauren posted this fantastic piece on white men playing Native Americans onscreen, and now I find myself compelled to write about race as well. I was, in fact, writing an entirely different piece on The Hunger Games when suddenly all anyone was talking about was how racist idiot fans were complaining because the character “Rue” was played by an African-American girl named Amandla Stenberg. Their complaint, it seems, was that Rue is supposed to be white, and also some racist nonsense that I won’t even put in print here, because it’s…well, racist and infuriating. This all came to the forefront when a Jezebel contributor named Dodai Stewart mentioned a Tumblr page called “Hunger Games Tweets“; this Tumblr collects images of tweets by supposed fans that “dare to call themselves fans yet don’t know a damn thing about the books.” Things like the fact that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins refers to Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” (Truthfully, this Rue-hating isn’t new–this race-based complaint was made when Stenberg was first cast.)
Seriously, people, this shouldn’t be an issue for fans for many reasons. Firstly, of course, for the obvious reason that Rue is, in fact “dark skinned” in the books, so Stenberg actually fits the character description. Secondly, race shouldn’t matter to you as a–cue the Drive soundtrack here–real human being. Now that I’ve got those insanely obvious parts of the argument out of the way, let’s get to the other stuff. Like the fact that race doesn’t actually matter in the world of the film or the book upon which it’s based. In Hunger Games, yes, Rue is black–as is the other District 11 Tribute, Thresh. But the awesome thing about Suzanne Collins’ work is that Rue’s skin tone is described as a means to visualize her as a character, but it is never brought up again. Her apparent blackness, like Katniss’ olive-skinned complexion–is never used as a plot point or a defining characteristic; it does not define her experience of the Hunger Games or the world in which she lives. Rue is young, sweet, and yes, “dark skinned,” but her sweetness and innocence are what matter to Katniss and to the reader/viewer. Katniss merely sees a young girl who resembles her young sister back in District 12–skin color doesn’t matter to Katniss, nor should it matter to us.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared if Rue had been played by a girl who couldn’t be described as “dark skinned,” not only because race has nothing to do with character (in both the literary and moralistic sense of the term) but because it also shouldn’t matter if an actor of a particular race plays a character of a different race. Why can’t an actor who is black play a character who is originally described as white in the source material, or vice versa, et cetera, et cetera? (Mind you, I’m not advocating for blackface–I’m saying that there’s no reason a character can’t look/be different in an adaptation from page to screen. After all, we wouldn’t tell a short actor that he can’t play a tall character, would we? If we did, Josh Hutcherson would not be playing “Peeta” right now!) Unless a character’s racial or ethnic background is integral to the plot of a film or their personal backstory (as in, say, Tom Sawyer), then who cares what race the actor is? Why does it matter if a character is briefly described as white or black? What should matter is whether or not the actor cast in the role is a decent performer. Literary purists and Hunger Games snobs might complain that a white or latina Rue isn’t true to the book, but I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to be 100% true to a novel when adapting it to the screen.
Ultimately, none of us should care at all that Rue is black, in either the novel or the film. Obviously it’s a horrifying shame that some idiots both can’t read and can’t see past race. Rather than focusing on Stenberg’s skin tone, I prefer to think about how fantastic she is in the role, and how she gives one of the best female performances in the film. By the way–not that I like taking my social cues from psychotic, dystopian death matches, but if there’s one thing that the Hunger Games themselves teach us, it’s that we are all inherently equal humans seeking the same things: love, protection, family, and life. If race doesn’t matter in the Capitol, the Districts, or the Hunger Games arena, why should it matter to us?