Way back in the day, when casting was revealed for the twelve tributes of The Hunger Games‘s movie adaptation, there was a hiccup of sorts. It was the first time that some fans were presented with a fact that they might have glossed over while reading the books. It was the first time I saw the “Wait, Rue and Cinna are black?” conversation happening. As I am constantly reminding myself, not everybody follows movie news as closely as others, and so this weekend the movie’s release began the “conversation” anew, and with a vengeance. Apparently, there were a lot of people out there who felt that Rue’s race “ruined” the movie, that it made her death “less sad,” made her character less “innocent,” and that, along with Cinna, the producers had made all the “good” characters black.
Rue, to make things more infuriating from the reading comprehension standpoint, is explicitly described as having dark skin and hair, and Suzanne Collins has also said outright and publicly that she and her fellow District 11 tribute Thresh are African-American. The whole thing is sad and depressing enough without knowing that thirteen-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg, the voracious reader, fan of the books, and to all appearances a very sweet and eloquent young lady who played Rue, knows all about it.
However, she released this statement yesterday, which at least gives the sense that she’s keeping upbeat about it all.
As a fan of the books, I feel fortunate to be part of The Hunger Games family. It was an amazing experience; I am proud of the film and my performance. I want to thank all of my fans and the entire Hunger Games community for their support and loyalty.
Her costar Isabelle Fuhrman, who played Clove (the girl with the knives), was more specific when talking to EOnline:
I think Amandla was fantastic in it, and she’s so beautiful. She’s exactly how I imagined her to be.
I think it’s just terrible. She’s such an amazing actress and she’s so sweet. I guess people read things differently and imagine things different, but I think she was the perfect choice for Rue.
The thing is, even if Stenberg didn’t absolutely fit the description of Rue in the books (which she does, and better than Jennifer Lawrence fits the canonical description of Katniss, I might add), there would be nothing wrong with recasting her as a person of color.
Now here’s where somebody calls me a hypocrite in the comments, but the fact is that POC actors are grossly under-represented in Hollywood and television and there are hundreds of roles that go to white actors because we see white as the “default” regardless of whether or not a character has been written to have any defined racial heritage at all. So, yes, in a world where The Hunger Games described Rue as white, her character’s race would still have no concrete presence in the story (that is, her character’s job in the story isn’t to teach Katniss an after-school-lesson about trusting black people, or her ability to climb trees isn’t predicated on her coming from, oh, a long line of Russian military snipers, to name two character details (of limited narrative value, I admit) that would in a different story have called for racially specific casting). And it would be well within the rights of producers, and even the morally better choice to cast her with an actress of color and give the movie a more diverse cast. See also: Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, whose skin color is never described in the books.
This is why the Racebending controversy was a real thing, deserving of Hollywood’s notice. This is why nobody should get mad over Lawrence Fishburne being cast as Perry White.
Edit: And before someone trots out the “studios are just looking to make money” argument, please read the third to last paragraph in my post on Lego Friends.