I got back from the theater late yesterday afternoon from a viewing of Catching Fire, the second adaptation in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. There are many, many things one could say about this particular film, but I’d particularly like to focus on the race-related aspects that, definitely emergent in The Hunger Games, particularly come to the fore in the Catching Fire adaptation. Note: SPOILERS ABOUND. If you haven’t read or seen it, you are welcome to keeping reading my post, but then you will be SPOILED. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of SPOILERS.
Okay, is that a decent warning? Moving on.
I didn’t think of race as being a huge issue in The Hunger Games trilogy, but when I saw the first film and then read responses, I wondered if maybe the films were on to something. Back when the first film was released, there was a strange outcry that Rue was black. I didn’t understand the response; I still don’t, actually. I thought the book made very clear that she was; in fact, I argue that it matters that Rue and Thresh are black. In the book, Katniss discusses how much Rue reminds her of her sister Prim, the girl whose place she has taken in the Hunger Games. Such a statement reminds us that we are all connected intimately as human beings, that we don’t need to be the same gender, sexuality, or race as someone to see ourselves in each other (which is a major premise of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which honestly could have been a much better book, but that’s not for this post, and no, I haven’t seen the film). In the first film, Katniss covers Rue’s body with flowers and makes her body seem like a viewing at a burial. This visual move reminds me astonishingly of James VanDerZee’s Harlem Book of the Dead, in which individuals are laid out for burial and then depicted in elaborate coffin scenes.
I knew we weren’t done with Rue, because the Victory Tour the Capitol forces Katniss and Peeta to revisit all the Districts and relive the Games. The first on their tour is District 11, home to both Rue and Thresh. The film smartly sets up a view of the district as Peeta and Katniss arrive in a militaristic vehicle to take the stage. In the tank, we glimpse workers picking cotton, surrounded by Capitol Peacekeepers.
The workers are all black, dressed plainly in dark clothing. The Peacekeepers are, you guessed it, white. It’s a chilling visual throwback to the slavery/sharecropping history in the South (which, according to a theoretical map of Panem, is where District 11 is located). Once we get to the “celebration,” which is anything but, Peeta and Katniss take the stage to see pictures of Rue and Thresh on either side. Their families have been forced to stand below these portraits, forming a triangulation with Katniss and Peeta on the stage. This setup makes the horrific scene even more heartbreaking, because you can see Thresh’s parents–alone–under the picture of their dead son. Rue’s mother (no father depicted) stands next to her remaining children, between 3-4, all younger than Rue.
Peeta puts away the carefully constructed speech and stammers out his gratitude and debt to Thresh. Katniss speaks of her relationship with Rue and how Rue saved her life and became her friend in the Arena. Peeta vows to donate a month of each of their winnings to the families for the rest of their lives–a gesture they have no way of meeting, but one they feel they can offer. It’s an interesting and honest depiction of survivors’ guilt (and, I’d argue, white guilt too). And then, instead of applause, an old man offers District 12’s three-finger salute. This gesture is interesting, because it echoes District 11’s response to Katniss’s own salute in The Hunger Games (I’d argue the most moving scene in the first film). In it, the entire district had saluted Katniss, and then a man started a riot (now that I think of it, maybe Rue’s father?). Here, though, violence is not caused by riot. The old man sings Rue’s mockingjay notes, and then, the Peacekeepers sift through the crowd, dragging him up to the stage as Peeta and Katniss are pushed into the building. Just as the doors close, we hear a gun go off in the vicinity of the man, who has been forced to kneel on the stage.
This staging is done very intentionally, I’d argue. Watching someone being (essentially) lynched in the public square is one example of the race crimes taking place in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. By porting into that discourse, the film has found a way to make our shameful history even more relevant, though the books themselves are works of dystopic fiction.
This sort of violence is also enacted on Cinna, Katniss’s secretly rebellious stylist.
Cinna turns Katniss’s fake wedding dress into the costume of a mockingjay, which is to become the symbol of the nascent revolution. In so doing, Cinna flouts President Snow’s orders, and quite publicly at that. As Katniss is ushered up to the Arena, enclosed in glass, Cinna is surrounded and brutally beaten by the Peacekeepers. She is forced to watch her friend and ally bludgeoned before her eyes. It’s horrific. And yes, Cinna is also black. I was reminded of the unprovoked attacks on black men by white law enforcement throughout our nation’s history. And we wonder why young black men fall into petty crime and a system of incarceration so young and so often…when we consider the history of violence in this country, the inequity with which crime is treated based on which color you are, it should give us pause.
What about Enobaria, the District 2 Career tribute, who had her teeth sharpened? Initially, I was very concerned that the film would depict her as the stereotypical black savage.
Thankfully, the film downplayed any violence associated with her (and in the books, I don’t recall much anyway), AND they depicted the perfect, blonde creepy siblings, Cashmere and Gloss (this franchise’s response to the Lannister twins) as much more cruel and violent. Plus, as My Sister pointed out, Beetee, whose ethnic origins was never made clear in the series, was depicted by the awesome Jeffrey Wright, a black man. As she rightfully noted, we cannot fall into the trap of making every African American character a saint, simply for their ethnic origins. Balance is good. So there’s that.
Is Catching Fire a film solely about racial oppression? No, there are other means of oppression, of torture that occur (and we need look no further than the ways in which Finnick has been exploited for Capitol gain, or how bitter winning has made Johanna, for instance). But I believe that the films saw an opportunity to make a statement about our sordid past and conflicted present and did so incisively. And the response to the first film has indeed shown that we are not, in fact, a post-race America.