The weekend, a depressing number of supposed Hunger Games fans expressed attitudes ranging from surprise to undisguised racist hostility at the discovery that black actors had been cast to play the characters Rue and Thresh in the movie. As more attentive fans were quick to point out, these reactions were not only ugly but obtuse: The characters are pretty clearly described in the book as having dark brown skin, and it’s strongly intimated that the agrarian District 11 from which they hail overlaps with the contemporary American South. (True, the author doesn’t describe them as “African American” because… what’s an American? We’re in Panem, remember?)
The book doesn’t dwell on this, though, and a reader skimming along at a fast clip could be forgiven for missing the two quick references. The deeper stupidity here is the assumption that the default race of any character is Caucasian when it’s not stated explicitly, and that casting a person of color in this case would represent some kind of deviation from the book’s implicit characterization. This would be wrongheaded for an adaptation of a book set in the present, but at least quasi-understandable: The social realities of people of color in contemporary America are different in a variety of ways, enough so that we do generally expect authors to make at least passing reference to a major character’s minority status.
It makes no sense at all, however, in a dystopian sci-fi novel (implicitly) set two or three centuries in the future. First, we have no real idea what the racial dynamics of Panem are like, so there’s no particular reason to think Suzanne Collins would need to make note of it if Katniss were of (say) Korean or Chicana descent. Second, and maybe more to the point, non-Hispanic whites are already projected to constitute less than half of the U.S. population in 2050, long before the earliest possible date for the events of the book. (Incidentally, reactions to the unfolding Trayvon Martin story reveal a surprising number of Americans struggling with the notion that the adjectives “white” and “Hispanic” might apply to the very same person. Kindly refer to the photo atop this blog if you’re among them.) Unless the war—and possibly other apocalyptic events—that precede the events of the book had some kind of wildly skewed demographic effects, you’d think our default expectation would be that a randomly chosen character of unspecified race won’t match your basic Anglo phenotype. If anything, then, the filmmakers probably should have gone a good deal heavier on the non-white actors—though I shudder to think how vile the Twitter reaction would have been if they had.