A few days ago, Imran Siddiquee wrote in The Atlantic about “the topics dystopian films won't touch”—namely, racism and sexism. Using films like The Giver, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, Siddiquee argues that today's dystopian films are missing the opportunity to comment on the issues that really do face us today.

I started writing this post yesterday, but as my Twitter feed scrolls past with #Ferguson, I'm more aware than ever that there are some vital critiques in Siddiquee's argument, particularly about how casting choices in films like The Hunger Games do affect viewers both individually and socially. He never uses these terms exactly, but what he means, I believe, is that what we see on screen shapes how we imagine the world to be—and how we imagine the world can be. Can, for instance, an actor or actress who isn't white (other than Denzel Washington or Will Smith) save the day in a tale of darkness?

That's why the casting choices in movies like The Hunger Games definitely matter. For instance, you'll recall after the first movie was released in 2012, a series of racist Tweets appeared about Amandla Stenberg, the young black actress who was cast as Rue, a character clearly described in the book as having “dark skin and eyes.”

"Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie ruined the movie," one Tweeter posted. "EWW rue is black?? I'm not watching,” wrote another.

You can write those off as the inane chatter of teenagers with low reading comprehension skills, but it's interesting to note, as Siddiquee does, that Katniss is described in the books as having “olive skin,” which is of course not something Jennifer Lawrence—who has otherwise done the character justice—has ever had. Though there are fine actresses who match the description.

So I agree with Siddiquee to that point, but I have one point of dissent.

Today my students brought in Siddiquee's article to discuss, and our resulting discussion quibbled with part of his point: that “while recent dystopias warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism.”

Siddiquee continues:

If the United States were to truly transform into a totalitarian state, or suffer an environmental catastrophe, it's safe to say society’s deepest divisions wouldn't magically disappear overnight. These dystopian adaptations ask their young audiences to imagine that race and gender issues have been partially overcome in the future, while general human suffering has somehow increased. The results feel false, and undercut the films’ attempts to comment on the present day.

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So, one piece of this rings true; on the other hand, I think it may miss the deeper implication of the stories, at least in The Hunger Games. Because The Hunger Games is also all about racism—or more accurately, the things that animate racism now.

Here are some things that animate racism: a preference for entertainment and spectacle over justice. Fear—of the weak, of the person not like me. The need to grasp at power one has before it slips away. Both willful and ignorant blindness to one's own privilege, a type of power that could be spent righteously, but often is not.

(In his book Playing God, CT's executive editor Andy Crouch defines the slippery, contested concept of privilege this way: “The best way I know to define privilege is the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power.” Those past exercises could have been righteous, or not; the point is, it's a type of power, and that power must not be taken lightly.)

Often at the core of racism is a sort of banality of evil: a system that has so shaped the imaginations of the people who were born into it that it's difficult to notice it's even happening. And even when we do see it, it's hard to break free. Because seeing the truth can hurt.

I think that is the sort of racism that The Hunger Games sets up. The Districts represent an explicit, institutionalized stratification—based in this case on geography, work assignment, and also somewhat on color: as one student pointed out today, it's either significant or troubling that Rue's home District 11, who are farmers, is depicted as nearly all black. These Districts are kept subjugated by a by-then ancient media spectacle—the Games—in which the victors are nearly always those with the money and time and resources to train their children to win.

The social setup in dystopian Panem is a system forced onto the weak (in this case, as a way of ensuring they will not rise up against their oppressors) and kept in place by the death, or threat of the death, of their children.

At core, the problem of racism is one of one group prevailing over another for a complicated set of reasons having to do with history and power. Globally, it seems it is linked more to ethnic identity than (necessarily) skin color, and even American history bears this out: while it mostly manifests in the historic injustice of slavery and its lasting implications, there were times when, for instance, the Irish were discriminated against as well. There is something below the surface of skin color-based racism that is more vicious.

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The story of The Hunger Games is one in which justice, when it prevails, does so half-heartedly; once you have power, it corrupts. I hope and pray it need not be this way. But while the movies haven't done a completely thorough job of thinking about how their casting choices shape the imagination of their viewers—nor has their marketing, as I wrote about when Catching Fire released last year—there is something there that might provide a way for us to talk to one another again about what happens when racism is encoded in a society's DNA.

And, with gladness, I note that the series—and specifically its three-finger salute—has been the impetus for protests against tyranny. In another article, The Atlantic reports:

On Wednesday, five Thai students were detained for using the salute during a speech by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. According to the Bangkok Post, the five, who were wearing anti-coup apparel, were pulled away by military police. Parroting the language of The Capitol, they were remanded to a military camp for an "attitude adjustment."

On Thursday, three more students were detained in Bangkok after they handed out free tickets to a screening of the film. As Reuters reported, one student, after using the salute in front of the movie poster, explained: "The three-finger sign is a sign to show that I am calling for my basic right to live my life." She was then taken away.

"We are just inviting them to talk," said Police Colonel Visoot Chatchaidet.

One last note: I will tell you what is completely missing from The Hunger Games, which I find interesting: religion, entirely. No church, no temple, no mosque; no god, no coalition except the political. There isn't even an ideology one might think of as religious, in the way of Communism or American national religion.

And in Panem, pervasive structural injustice rules, without hope of relief. I'm reminded of Philip Yancey's “Confessions of a Racist,” which ran here in Christianity Today in January 2000: “Today I feel shame, remorse, and also repentance,” Yancey wrote. “It took years for God to break the stranglehold of blatant racism in me—I wonder if any of us gets free of its more subtle forms—and I now see this sin as one of the most poisonous, with perhaps the greatest societal effects.”

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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