Some young fans of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games novel are lamenting the new film adaptation... for rather unsettling reasons. The characters Rue and Thresh — who fight alongside heroine Katniss Everdeen in a government-sponsored reality TV death match — are played by black actors, and fans who'd presumed the characters were white have tweeted provocative complaints about the casting. The "racist tweets" have quickly gone viral, sparking a larger conversation about tween and teen prejudice. Here, a guide to the controversy (Caution: Some spoilers lie ahead):
Who are these characters?
Rue and Thresh are kids forced by a corrupt totalitarian government to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised competition in which two dozen teens must fight to the death. Katniss and Rue bond quickly and intensely, which gives Rue's eventual death an extra emotional wallop. Thresh hails from the same district as Rue, and protects Katniss in repayment for her friendship to the young girl. In the film, Rue is played by 13-year-old black actress Amandla Stenberg, and Thresh is portrayed by Nigerian-born actor Day Okeniyi.
And what is these tweeters' problem?
For at least a few moviegoers, the decision to make Rue and Thresh African-American weakened the film's impact. "Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie ruined the movie," one dismayed fan tweeted. "EWW rue is black?? I'm not watching," bemoaned another. "Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn't as sad #ihatemyself." Many more tweets, some employing the "n-word," have been collected on a Tumblr page called Hunger Games Tweets, which seeks to "expose the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare call themselves fans yet don't know a damn thing about the books."
Were the characters black in the book?
Collins clearly described them as "dark-skinned," if not specifically black. On page 45, Katniss sees Rue for the first time and describes her this way: "She has dark brown skin and eyes." Later, Katniss meets Thresh, saying that he "has the same dark skin as Rue." Not only did these angry tweeters "misread basic descriptive sentences," says Fahima Haque at The Washington Post, it seems, more disturbingly, that they automatically assumed sympathetic characters were white.
How have other fans reacted?
Most people are appalled. We should all be disgusted by these "disappointing, sad, stomach-turning, and just plain racist" tweets, says Dodai Stewart at Jezebel. These tweets expose a persistent prejudice in pop culture, says Bim Adewunmi at the U.K.'s Guardian. Blacks "get to be the supporting characters — the redshirts — or the villains. But heroes? Um, no."
Could this controversy actually be a good thing?
Yes, says Erik Klain at Forbes. We should be grateful that Facebook and Twitter have made it easier to expose the "small minority of angry bigots" who thought they could say racist things under "the cloak of anonymity." Now we can hold them accountable. This "shame culture" may never rid us of racism, but it could "water it down." Case in point: Within hours of Jezebel rounding up examples of the toxic tweets, the vast majority of the users in question either shut down their Twitter accounts or made them private.