BERNSTEIN: Not seen and not heard

The latest “Hunger Games” film perpetuates a stereotype about black men

As an avid fan of the books, I greeted the latest film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” series with enthusiasm. I don’t mind most of the film’s divergences from the book. There are few, and most are slight. But one place where the film deviates from the book is worth some discussion. When Katniss and Peeta go on their victory tour, they visit the districts of each of their former competitors; the first district is District 11. In the film, District 11 seems to be the only primarily non-white district (the racial makeup of each district isn’t elaborated on in the books).

As Katniss and Peeta make short speeches about Thresh and Rue, the two tributes from District 11, we see Thresh and Rue’s families on elevated stands. This is the small detail that irks me: neither Thresh nor Rue, who are both black, seem to have a father. In the book, Thresh’s family consisted of his grandmother and sister, so here the film has stayed true to the text. But Rue’s family consisted of a father, a mother and siblings. In the film, we see only Rue’s mother and siblings.

There is a longstanding stereotype that black men become absent fathers. I don’t think the makers of “The Hunger Games” wish to perpetuate that stereotype, but in this scene they at least border on perpetuating it, especially since Thresh and Rue’s families are the only black families we see in both the first and second “Hunger Games” films. Many people accept the stereotype of the absent black father. Even if there is no explicit reason Thresh and Rue’s fathers are absent, audience members who believe this stereotype might infer that Thresh and Rue’s fathers intentionally abandoned them.

As with most stereotypes, the black matriarchy stereotype is rooted in some truth: according to the 2013 U.S. Census, 67.8 percent of black women who gave birth this year were unmarried, compared to 26 percent of white women. This disparity is used to fuel the belief that black men are worse fathers than white men — a racist sentiment in and of itself. But these numbers alone don’t provide a solid basis for that belief.

The circumstances of black and white births are extremely different. Members of the black community tend to be in a lower economic class than members of the white community, and class plays a large role in how families are shaped. According to the same census cited above, 68.9 percent of women with the lowest household incomes who gave birth this year were unmarried, compared to 9 percent of women with the highest household incomes. Since race and class are largely related in the U.S., it is unreasonable to conclude that race, as opposed to class, is the causal factor in creating single-parent homes.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from concluding that race and parenting ability are related. This belief transcends statistical evidence; it comes from a general history of promoting white supremacy.

This cultural issue is much larger than the movie scene that sparked its discussion. The scene in question is short, but these films are made carefully and deliberately; at some point, there was a conversation about whether or not Rue’s family should be portrayed as it was in the book. For whatever reason, the final decision did not take into account a longstanding and offensive American tradition of denigrating black men as bad parents.

The absent black father stereotype won’t become rampant just because of this one scene, and either way that particular stereotype is already widespread. But that doesn’t excuse these filmmakers’ lack of attentiveness to this issue. Media of all forms have considerable influence over our cultural convictions and if there’s a chance to negate a stereotype, or at least to avoid reinforcing it, then people who have any level of control over media should take it. In this case, the filmmakers should have been more aware of the impact of even the simplest artistic choices.

Dani Bernstein is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Tuesdays.

Published December 2, 2013 in Opinion

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