In Dixie Land I'll Take My Stand: Hunger Games (2012)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 26, 2012 12:33pm | Post a Comment
hunger games president snow  president ulysses s. grant
Presidential beards were popular in the 19th century and they become popular again sometime in our dystopian
future. On the left is President Coriolanus Snow of Panem and on the right, President Ulysses S. Grant.

When blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence was cast last year as the dark-haired, olive-skinned and grey-eyed heroine Katniss for the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy the decision was met with outrage from some bloggers. Perhaps they hadn't considered hair dye or contact lenses, but that doesn't diminish the fact that it's much more rare to see Hollywood go darker than lighter when casting films. One exception was Will Smith in I Am Legend, which suggested cross-racial casting is rooted just as much in the stupidity of star power as it is racism. Lawrence had just been nominated for playing a hillbilly in Winter's Bone, so she was as obvious a choice for the role of the Appalachian Katniss as Peter Dinklage is for any character under 5 feet, or Hayden Panettiere a cheerleader. Having just seen the movie, what's baffling to me is why anyone would find it preferable -- as in less offensive -- to have a black or mixed-race girl in the role given the fantasy world that's been (re-)constructed.

Panem is what's left of North America after much of it was submerged under a rising shore line (here's a fan-made map that isn't revealed in the movie). The country was once unified under the rule of the Capitol until the Districts (akin to our states) rebelled, because of unfair treatment (which isn't specified in the movie). This war is referred to as the Dark Days. The rebellion was eventually quashed and, as punishment, the Districts (12 at this point) were forced to pay tribute to the Capitol by giving up a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, each year for the Hunger Games. These 24 contestants fight to the death as a form of entertainment for the Capitol's wealthy citizens. Furthermore, each of the Districts has certain natural resources, which are produced largely for the consumptive habits of the Capitol, while the producers are made to go without (similar to the underground workers providing for the needs of the city-dwelling leisure class in Metropolis). All of this is closely monitored by the dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

For the Game that forms the basis of the present movie, the audience only really gets to know (and thusly identify with) the Tributes from the two poorest Districts, 11 and 12, roughly corresponding to Georgia and Appalachia, respectively. The former seems to be largely comprised of black sharecroppers and the latter white coal-miners. Race matters little in this world; the problems are all about class. There are black citizens of the Capitol (Lenny Kravitz plays a significant example) while Katniss seems no better off than Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the black District 11 Tribute she teams up with during the Game. One might be tempted to read this story as a political allegory appealing to the libertarian fears of central planning and the totalitarian control of capital -- that is, the attempt to mete out all cultural needs from a central committee will inevitably put the majority on, in Friedrich Hayek's phrase, a road to serfdom. Katniss and her kin, after all, have no control over what they produce. But consider the parallel that goes with this reading, which shows why the current libertarian-oriented presidential candidate Ron Paul would suggest that the American Civil War wasn't about slavery per se, but about the Union trying to control Confederacy's production and distribution of capital. President Lincoln could have just bought all the slaves and freed them, rather than going to war, which was much more costly. Yeah, that's right, freedom would've been maximized by buying men from other men. The irony is lost on Paul, of course:

By taking race out of the equation, The Hunger Games provides us with a pretty good picture of what a dystopian America might look like to Paul, or would've looked like to the early 20th century historians of Reconstruction known as the Dunning School. Led by the thinking of William Archibald Dunning, they viewed Reconstruction as the Dark Ages of American politics (sound familiar?), in which the corrupt radical Republicans (rabid abolitionists -- the horror!), such as President Grant, used scalawags (turncoat Southerners supporting the North), carpetbaggers (Northerners put into power in the South) and the newly granted voting power of freedmen (ex-slaves) to spread the North's dominion over the South, i.e., to make the latter bend at the knee. Capitol has its scalawags (e.g., Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner of the Games from District 12; played by Woody Harrelson) and carpetbaggers (e.g., Effie Trinket, in control of District 12's lottery; Elizabeth Banks), too, but no freedmen, making the sympathy for fantasized Southern-styled victimization easier for modern audiences (watching former plantation owners fight to the death would be a harder emotional sale). All the injustice in this allegory is on the part of the Union stand-in. That the freedom curtailed in Reconstruction was the ownership of another man as property mattered little to Dunning; it was the right to control one's own property that was being infringed. As he explained, Grant failed in his thinly-veiled, "Caesarist" attempt at a third term. Had he succeeded, again and again, we might've got something like President Snow and the Hunger Games, where hard-working, free Southerners are reduced, as with Katniss, to the property of the Capitol (i.e., to mere capital, like black slaves). And when she succeeds in toppling the centralized government -- as she inevitably will (foreshadowed here by an uprising in District 11 when she provides a symbolic gesture of proletarian solidarity at the loss of their Tribute) -- whose fantasy is getting fulfilled?

Relevant Tags

The Hunger Games (4), William Archibald Dunning (1), Ron Paul (1), Civil War (3), Reconstruction (1)