I have to make a confession to make. I read The Hunger Games and didn’t realise Rue was black.
I mean, there was a description in the book and everything. We get told she has dark skin. But somehow my mind glossed over this and so when I finally got around to seeing the movie, I was a bit surprised. Whoops.
This only goes to show one of the prime differences between movies and books. In books, authors can just not describe the person’s skin colour and leave readers to fill in that detail. In movies, you don’t get that liberty. Film is visual. It forces us to see things like race, and to connect the characters to their race.
This should be a good thing. All fiction, books and movies included, is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. It’s all about looking at someone else and rooting for them. If that person is not like us, then all the better. All the easier for us to meet someone in real life who is not like us and think, “Oh, they’re a person, just like me,” rather than, “Oh, they’re one of those, I wouldn’t trust them.” That’s why it’s important to cast a diverse array of actors in non-stereotypical roles.
And The Hunger Games did a pretty good job at this. Rue was cast well, so was Thresh (another character where I failed at reading comprehension). Furthermore, there’s Cinna, the enigmatic stylist who is Katniss’s closest ally in the preparation for the Games. In the books, Suzanne Collins doesn’t really describe his skin colour. They had a choice there, and they chose Lenny Kravitz. Not a bad call.
But was it enough?
Turns out I wasn’t the only one who misread The Hunger Games. According to some tweets collected by the creator of the site Hunger Games Tweets, others were not only surprised, but disappointed and angry. One tweeter even said ‘her death wasn’t as sad’ on learning Rue’s race. Turns out there are still people who can’t feel empathy for someone who isn’t like them, even a fictional character.
This is because we are fighting against the stories that have already been told, over and over. The stories about black people not being people you should feel empathy for. The stories that tell us ‘some black girl’ is not the same as a ‘little blonde innocent girl.’
We need to fight this, and Rue is not enough. Thresh is not enough. Cinna, wonderful though he is, is not enough. And we’re not even moving forwards.
This film came out in 2012. Four years later, the people on the movie screens are still predominantly white. Hollywood has gone so far as to make adaptations of stories based on non-Western, non-white cultures, and cast white actors in these non-white roles.
We need to see more people who are not white in movies. We need to see Asians, black people, brown people, people of all shapes and sizes. We need to learn how to empathise with them, to see that they are more than what they look like, that they are people just like us. Otherwise, the stories that tell us that they are not us, they are not innocent, their deaths aren’t as sad – those stories will win.
And that won’t improve my reading skills at all.