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White Rage, the Hunger Games, and the Lack of Justice for Eric Garner

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Today, like too many days, I am angry. Today a grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against the white officer who killed Eric Garner, father of six, with a chokehold. The killing is on video, which many people hoped would mean an indictment and, eventually, a conviction. Not so. Today, America tells us once again that the value it places in black life is nil, insubstantial, nonexistent.

The protests have already begun in New York, and I’m thinking about anger, rage. I’m thinking about things that burn. When the grand jury in St. Louis County announced that it would not be indicting Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson burned. Over the weekend, I saw the latest Hunger Games film—Mockingjay—and in it, the Capitol executes unarmed civilians, their deaths broadcasted for millions of eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice: the killing of unarmed people, one a man and one a child, their murders recorded and spreading like wildfire on the Internet. Like in Hunger Games, the people have taken to the streets to protest these killings, demanding change, demanding that the system in which laws benefit some and murder others be overthrown. It’s been written about extensively, this parallel between the Hunger Games and this America that not only sets Darren Wilson free but awards him almost $1 million for…what? In Hunger Games, we stand behind Katniss as she takes on a system bent on her—literal—destruction: she is our champion as she fires an explosive arrow at a plane that targets women and children. In Mockingjay, the film crew following her gets the perfect shot when Katniss witnesses the destruction of one of the weaker districts, shouting into the camera, “This is what they [the Capitol] do!” She gestures at the fire that has engulfed the victims of the district. “And we must fight back!”

There have been accusations that police in St. Louis have set fires in Ferguson, an assertion which some media outlets have claimed to debunk but that protestors on the ground insist are true. Thinking of things that burn, one can’t help but remember the MOVE bombing of 1985 in Philadelphia, in which police dropped bombs on a black liberation group’s commune and then, when the commune was engulfed in flames, “let the fire burn.” In Ferguson, it has been clear since day one that the police and National Guard have been the aggressors in the rising tension since Mike Brown’s death. One can’t sit in the theater with Mockingjay shining in one’s eyes—the Capitol’s troops with their intimidating tanks; their masks; their weapons—and not think of Ferguson. The malicious Peacekeepers keep peace in name only: the audience sees their suppression of revolution and we hate them for it: no one in their right mind would sit in the theater and think to themselves, “You know, maybe if the districts stopped being so angry. Maybe if the districts worked a little harder. Maybe if Katniss had a father, this wouldn’t be happening to her and her people.”

It’s interesting: in Mockingjay, Peeta withers away before our eyes in Capitol captivity, his eyes sunken and his skin chalky. Prisoner to President Snow, he gives a few interviews to the Capitol media in which he says things that make the rebels in the districts curse his name: “Killing is not the answer! Stop and think of what all this violence could mean!” He begs Katniss and the districts to “show restraint,” and when they bomb the Capitol’s dams, Peeta roundly condemns the act of violence.

In the audience, you are aghast. In the audience, you can’t believe that Peeta would call for “restraint” in the face of a system that grows rich off the districts’ blood. In the audience, you know that Peeta must be brainwashed, trying to protect Katniss, something, because clearly you’re on the side of the districts, clearly you’re on the side of the people fighting against tyranny and murder. In the audience, you are filled with rage for the unfairness of it all.

Roughly 64% of Hunger Games moviegoers are white. I would venture to conclude that this means that those white people side with Katniss, with Peeta, with the districts, with the people who are gunned down by government agents and whipped at the post, and see no justice. Yet 32% of white people look at the protests in Ferguson and say that the police response to those events is “about right.” 35% of white people don’t have an opinion at all.

What is it about the Hunger Games that stirs white people’s empathy? Surely it is Katniss and her lovers’ whiteness. After all, Katniss and the districts’ plight have a lot in common with that of black Americans, past and present. Economic marginalization, forced labor, public shootings with no legal recourse, whipping at the post, and even lynching. In the theater, I sat, disturbed, as Katniss sang a song about “the hanging tree.”

“Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where they strung up a man they say murdered three”

In these words, I can’t help but hear the accusations leveled against the black lives taken in America to justify their killing. At one point, for a black American to be lynched, the only “crime” they had to commit was being black. Now, in “post-racial” America, there exists a kind of shroud of language around the reason for these deaths. For John Crawford and Tamir Rice, it is shouted that they carried BB guns (despite living in Ohio, an open-carry state). For Eric Garner, it is screamed that he was selling cigarettes. Mike Brown, they say, punched Darren Wilson, although photographs of Wilson’s “injuries” seem to illustrate only rosacea. “They say he murdered three,” sings Katniss, and we in the audience don’t need to ask to know who “they” is: “they” is the system, the Capitol, the President himself. And we don’t need to know if the man being strung up is guilty or innocent: we are on his side, because we know the Capitol is guilty, guiltier, guilty as sin.

At times it seems that the Hunger Games script was written after Ferguson. President Snow sits in his office at the Capitol and consults with his PR people about what they should call the districts that have begun to rebel. He doesn’t want to call them rebels, he says. It gives them too much weight. “Criminals?” his assistant suggests, and in the audience you cringe, you sneer because you know Katniss is no criminal; you know how unfair and twisted it is. “Radicals,” they finally decide. Radicals. And you shake your head, because you know it’s bullshit propaganda.

In St. Louis, Missouri, the same meeting was held. In media offices all over the country, the same meeting was held. Jeff Roorda, spokesman and business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, chose the word “thugs.” All over America, the word “thug” is chosen just as carefully, just as specifically as President Snow chose “radicals.” Are you cringing? Are you hearing the word and knowing you are hearing spin, strategy, propaganda?

One of the recurring themes in Hunger Games—in the films and in the books—is the role media plays in the subjugation of the district; the way crimes—the murder of humans—are recorded and used as entertainment. We look at that world—the world of Panem, a United States not united but torn apart by class wars and violence—and believe it an impossible distortion of our society. Yet Eric Garner’s murder, Tamir Rice’s murder, John Crawford’s murder, were all caught on camera, broadcasted on television and on the Internet—and they mean nothing. They don’t serve as entertainment, no, but these videos, captured for what we all hoped would be evidence in punishing the killers responsible, serve no purpose. Even with video, no indictment for Eric Garner’s killer. Even with video, no indictment for John Crawford’s murder. These videos exist only as an endlessly looping reminder of what America reinforces every day: in this system, black lives do not matter.

The Hunger Games shows us a world in which police are out of control and the government is hell-bent on keeping people poor and afraid; a world in which the masses, tired of being abused and killed on TV, rise up and demand change, by any means necessary. In Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen looks in the camera and raises her voice, “You can torture or bomb us, blast our district to the grounds. But do you see that? Fire is catching…If we burn, you burn with us!”

I want the white people in the theater cheering for Katniss to look at the countless black lives that have been taken by police in America—one every 28 hours— without justice, and say the same. I want the fire to catch. It is our responsibility. The wrongs that we weep for in Panem, the imagined wrongs that are inflicted on imagined white people, are happening to black Americans around you right at this moment. I want the fire to catch. Look at the damage, the irreconcilable violence, that the police in America wreak on black lives and say, “This is what they do. And we must fight back.”

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Why I’m So Excited For the New Annie Movie with Quvenzhané Wallis

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In the face of critics who are already writing brainless articles about why the new Annie will “probably be terrible,” I am ecstatic. In the midst of those who shout down Quvenzhané Wallis for being too spunky, too confident, too something, I am absolutely psyched for this movie and I’ll tell you why.

Because it’s about a black girl. A black girl who lives.

A blogger and thinker who I’m a big fan of, Son of Baldwin, posted the trailer to the new Annie on the Son of Baldwin Facebook page. The caption to the post: “I hope this movie makes black girls everywhere feel visible and cherished.” I could echo those sentiments a million times, and I will add to them here: I am excited about this film because it is a story about a black girl who wins.

For those of you who are asking why we need to focus on the concept of black girls winning, I will cite an earlier blog of mine here. Yes, it’s needed. Positive portrayals of black girls and women in mainstream media are far and in between, especially in the context of coming of age stories. A coming of age story is one that focuses on the psychosocial development of a youth or a group of youths and it usually involves great conflict and transformation. So often these stories focus on boyhood: formative experiences like those in Stand By Me. Google it. Google “coming of age movies” and you will find that the stories our culture says define coming of age are those like The Sandlot or Superbad. For boys of color there are far fewer, but some: Cooley High. Boyz in the Hood. School Daze. Try Googling “coming of age movies for girls” and you’ll find a lot less. The Breakfast Club, which is about young men and women, all of them white, is one that appears. In fact, almost all of the coming of age stories focusing on girls feature all-white casts. Mean Girls. An edgier film about sex and orgasms called Coming Soon. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Clueless are two that appear a lot, both of which cast girls of color but the vast majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of white girls.

So what about black girls? Their absence is troubling. As a society we give a lot of thought about the formation of women, especially in recent decades: we are interested in their stories. We are curious about their worlds and rituals, especially in the context of a patriarchal society. The telling of stories about women has become more prevalent, although we still lack action heroines that aren’t decked out in cleavage-exposing spandex. But what about black girls, specifically? Black filmmakers fight to get black films into Hollywood. Black folks in general are underrepresented in mainstream media, and when they are present, are more often than not distorted by harmful stereotypes. Especially—as I mentioned above, but I’m going to mention it again—especially when it comes to black girls.

In other cases, black and brown girls are cast less stereotypically in their character but are isolated in a sea of white faces: see Dion in Clueless. Or, just as often, black and brown girls are cast as a sort of tragic foil to white protagonists. See Kerry Washington’s character in Save the Last Dance, who knows what it’s like to be poor and a single mom. Or the Latina character in Secret Life of the American Teenager, Adrian, who is slutty and miserable and alone. We were all psyched to see Rue be cast as black in The Hunger Games…until we remembered that Rue dies in the book. Tragic black girls. Even in Beasts of the Southern Wild, where Wallace first stole our hearts, Hushpuppy survives…but she’s not quite whole at the end of it all. Her coming of age is painful and harsh. Violent. She loses her father and, rather than merely gaining her transformation, she loses her childhood. The black girl lives, but she bleeds. There are exceptions to all this, of course. Akeelah and the Bee was fantastic, but far too rare.

So forgive me if I am excited for Annie. The new Annie, in which Quvenzhané Wallis is beaming and jubilant and visible. She goes through tough times—that’s what a coming of age story is all about—but we all know how Annie ends. Annie wins. I’m not into musicals, but please believe I will be dancing in my theater seat come December. As Son of Baldwin said so well, I am here for a film in which black girls are “visible and cherished.” Loved. Present. Winning.

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Catching Fire and the Limits of White Imagination

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After watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire this weekend, I was pleased to see that Beetee, the brilliant inventor and electric genius from District 3, was played by none other than Jeffrey Wright. I was also pleased that I didn’t hear any muttering in the theater about the fact that Beetee was black. We all remember the disgusting racist backlash when the first installment of the film cast Amandla Stenberg, a young black actress, as Rue (despite the fact that Rue was indeed black in the book). But my pleasure didn’t last long. The next day on the bus, I overheard a young woman and her friends—who had just come from the film, apparently—exchanging their thoughts about what they had just seen, and the young woman said, “I thought it was awesome. Well, except for Beetee. Why the f*ck did they make him black? Beetee wasn’t black.”

Folks. Let me tell you something. You might want to sit down, because this could be a shocker for you. Here it is. Are you ready?

The Hunger Games is not real. (gasp) I know. Stunning. This dystopian world in which children are sent into an arena to fight to the death is, in fact, fictional, imaginary, fantastical. And you know what that means. That means that the appearances of the characters therein are also not real. That is, they are subject to the imagination of the reader. Katniss is described as “olive-skinned,” which can be interpreted semi-loosely, but Beetee? He was merely described as having “ashen skin” and black hair. Lots to play with there. Right? It’s a book. He looks different to all of us in our heads.

But that’s not what this is really about, is it? After hearing this young woman’s comment, I jumped on Twitter and searched mentions of Beetee’s name. I came across the usual racist vitriol, but there was the occasional tweet that looked like this:

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I saw more of the same in comment sections on various articles around the web—Never read the comment sections, guys. Really.—and it has led me to believe that the problem isn’t that Hunger Games purists who believe that Beetee looked a certain way were disappointed that the film strayed from that representation, it’s that white audiences in America are afflicted with a certain limitation of the imagination when it comes to the representation of characters they are fond of. Something that struck me as very interesting was the following tweet:

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It is difficult to imagine benevolent geniuses as black, it seems, but quite easy to imagine villains as black. This is telling, isn’t it? Telling that the white imagination, when provided in a book with descriptions of a “good guy”—intelligent, valuable, kind, even gentle—imagines that character as white (like themselves) but when provided with descriptions of a villain, a killer, a dangerous maniac…imagines that character as a black man. Morgan Freeman. Who has overwhelmingly portrayed “good” characters in his career as an actor. He even played God once, if memory serves. What is it, then, that causes the white imagination to provide his face as a stand-in for what they imagine as a ruthless child killer in a fictional world?

His blackness. And only that.

As white people, we are used to representations of ourselves crowding the covers of magazines, crowning the posters of newly released films. The good guys are white, we have learned, after eons of our faces being plastered under cowboy hats and in impeccable Bond suits. White men are Superman, we have learned. White men are Ethan Hunt and Neo and white men are hobbits. Bad men, we have learned, are black. They’re gang bangers and thugs and talk loud and sometimes deliver funny lines where we laugh at their Otherness. Black men aren’t heroes, we learn. Our imagination and subconscious are so saturated with white supremacist notions of goodness, beauty, and heroism, that when confronted head-on with an image of a black man who is brilliant and kind and normal and who saves the day, we transform into robotic versions of ourselves: Does…not…compute. Hero…must be…white. It’s this line of thinking that turned Disney’s Princess Tiana into an animal for 95% of the movie. The collective white imagination had difficulty imagining a black girl as a princess…and so she became a frog.

This isn’t about staying true to the book. Suzanne Collins was vague (I believe purposefully so) with the descriptions of her characters, so when we say “I didn’t picture Rue as black,” or “No, Beetee was white,” it is not the text that is leading us. We’re following a different illogical path of logic, one in which everything we believe about ourselves as white heroes and heroines is being contradicted. The notions taught by patriarchy and white supremacy do not only effect our day-to-day encounters in reality; they shape our imaginations and our expectations, our intangible realities.

But unlike the tributes who enter the arena in The Hunger Games, we have a choice. We can choose. We can choose to step aside on what we’ve been taught is our pedestal of greatness and acknowledge that there is room for more. We can choose to transform our ideas of heroes and who can be good, and kind, and brave. The alternative is bleak. If even our imaginations are irrevocably bound to what patriarchal and white supremacist doctrines prescribe, then we’re in trouble. The moment we kill the thing in us that imagines change and difference and growth is the moment we kill any hope of a better world. The world in The Hunger Games may not be “better,” but how much worse is it really when it can imagine a genius hero who is black…and we can’t?

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