Suzanne Collins's young adult trilogy The Hunger Games, dubbed the "racial games" by some cultural commentators, takes place in the dystopian nation-state called Panem. And, as recent controversy suggests, it also takes place in our minds.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, film intervenes more directly in the relationship between image and audience than literature, which means that filmgoers often react differently to narratives than readers. We saw it before with The Human Stain (2003) and we're seeing it now with the film version of The Hunger Games (2012).
Months before the film was released many readers objected to the casting of blonde Jennifer Lawrence to transform into darker-skinned protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Then, just after the film's release a racist tweet-storm arose when moviegoers tweeted their discontent because the characters of Cinna, Thresh, and Rue were cast as black. "This," as CNN.Com rightly points out, "despite the fact that both Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) are described as having "dark skin" in Suzanne Collins' novel, while Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is simply described as having short brown hair."
The latest "racial games" crisis concerns Finnick Odair, a character that emerges in the second and third installments of The Hunger Games trilogy. Finnick is described as a very handsome "tan" man with "golden skin", "bronze-colored hair" and "incredible" green eyes. So, some fans have launched a campaign to see that Cabin In The Woods and Grey's Anatomy actor Jesse Williams gets cast in the role.
This kind of thing happens all the time in Hollywood. So what's the big deal this time? Well, to begin with the character's color, or lack of it, depending on how you see him, is striking. Message board posters who draw attention to Finnick's color as white-only are evidence of this point even as they miss a larger one. That casting Williams as Finnick is a deliberate move to call attention to what some say demographics are telling us: That we're entering a "tan" miscegenation, where old ways of looking at race are historical relics.
So the question becomes, who is passing? Is the character Finnick passing as white in readers' minds? Or, is he passing as black (or some other race) if Williams gets the role?
No matter how we answer these questions, we must acknowledge that the novel and film are showing us that racial passing is alive and well, emphasizing the cognitive stains racial categories and hierarchies leave behind.
Loving Finnick in the book and hating Finnick in the movie are the easy answers, for neither requires the hard work of rethinking racial fictions, challenging definitions of passing as deception and imposture, and confronting the realities of racial and ethnic formation in contemporary popular culture.
The hard work involves listening to the things said in passing, to the things that no one likes to talk about. Things like admitting that those who can pass as white men continue to accrue palpable advantages even in futuristic places like Panem. Things like acknowledging our ongoing perception of whiteness as unstained and of nonwhiteness as an odd deviation of form. Things like recognizing that enslavement, rape, duplicity, segregation, and discrimination happened and catalyzed the formation of a racial group (i.e., people we generally refer to in the U.S. as black) that is largely multiracial and is now expressing aspects of its contemporary relevance in multiracial terms. Because audiences refuse to see how they are implicated in these things said in passing, they are unable to really see characters like Finnick or actors like Williams well either.
From there the legacy of racial passing in The Hunger Games trilogy finds itself. And it appears to have found us as well.