Culture

The Hunger Games' Subtly Racist Cliché

Why is Hollywood still reducing black actors to spiritual servitude?

The Hunger Games has generated discussions of race that tap into age-old prejudices and expectations. A few bigoted fans, for example, are upsetwith the screen adaptation, expressing disappointment that the young Rue is played by a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) and a hairstylist named Cinna by the biracial Lenny Kravitz.

But there's a more subtle bigotry that gets less attention. The film portrayals are consistent with a cinematic cliché known as the Negro Spirit Guide. Filmgoers may not consciously notice this time-honored pattern, but it exists. Long before Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her role in The Blind Side as a mother whose family finds a calling in adopting a teenage black athlete, screenwriters and directors set a precedent for the characters we see in The Hunger Games.

 Leading the Way

In the Negro Spirit Guide tradition, white lead characters are taught life's higher lessons by people of color. Sidney Poitier actually made a career of showing white characters "the way." In the 1950 film No Way Out, Poitier plays a black physician who cares for and enlightens a bigot. More than a decade later, the actor won a historic Academy Award for showing a group of nuns the light in Lilies of the Field.

More recent spirit guide characters include those portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Sister Act and The Long Walk Home, and Laurence Fishburne in Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Matrix. (The Matrix actually employed the device twice: Fishburne leads Keanu Reeves' character to another black guide, portrayed by Gloria Foster.) Cuba Gooding Jr. provided the spiritual inner voice in What Dreams May Come, Jerry Maguire and Radio.

Black Americans have long symbolized inner spirit, which is reflected by terms such as "Negro spiritual," "soul music" and "soul food." Despite stereotypes that black slaves and their descendants were immoral, irreverent, and in some feral sense, lacking a soul, the symbolic Negro Spirit Guide has existed as the flip side of the coin, acting as a magical positive influence that helps the wayward white person find truth. Huckleberry Finn's "Jim" was a classic example, exhibiting a childlike nature and helping the main character gain perspective.

Hollywood screenwriters are taught that the classic story arc features a protagonist on a journey leading to a revelation or victory, and often an angel presence shepherds the character along this route. The angels on your Sunday school-book pages or stained glass windows may have been white cherubs, but the angels on the big and small screen are often black. Before The Help, Regina Taylor's character of a maid to a 1960s Alabama family in the hit NBC series "I'll Fly Away" borrowed from this cinematic trend. On television's long-running "Touched by an Angel," the lead actress, Roma Downey, played a spirit guide with her own spirit guide, Della Reese.

Why Black Angels Work

So why does Hollywood keep tapping into this theme? Do storytellers see a youthful innocence in the African-American heart? Do they respect the moral compass of black America?

It seems to me that the meme is more of a backhanded compliment. It defines -- and confines -- the guide as fantastic and the white follower as the true lead traveler in the real world. Angelic characters such as Rue in The Hunger Games embody a distinct type of black power deemed safe for white viewers. The spirit guide is mainly an instrument. He or she serves to help the protagonist connect with the inner self, but the guide does not experience such an epiphany.

Call it spiritual servitude.

Amandla Stenberg's Rue serves to remind the lead character, Katniss, of the 12-year-old sister she left at home, who like Rue, believes Katniss can accomplish anything. In the film, Rue is largely speechless in her first scenes, then bonds with big sister Katniss, aiding the protagonist’s survival with timely tips and actions. The sisterly pair are codependent in the wild, as the younger girl is curiously confident despite the present dangers. She's what some would term an “old soul.” 

Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna shares more philosophy than he does styling tips. As a critical adult source of sensitivity and strength, he also expresses his confidence in Katniss. Kravitz’s worldly portrayal contrasts with the youthful, shy designer many readers imagined (in many cases, picturing him as white), according to their posts on entertainment and literature message boards.

Toward a Postracial Society of Characters

How can Hollywood and pop culture move into a colorless community of story? What would white filmgoers encounter if the Negro Spirit Guide went the way of colored-only drinking fountains? In their role as mediums, angelic black figures serve as punctuation marks in the lives of protagonists. Magical helpers also may help assuage subconscious discomfort regarding American institutions of everyday servitude such as slavery and Jim Crow. Servitude, in modern film, is elevated to the level of mysticism.

By contrast, black protagonists, enduring and overcoming their own trials, cause viewers to consider the realities of race relations and second-class citizenship. Such films may not resonate as well with mainstream audiences. No matter our ethnicity, we are wired to identify most with those who share our backgrounds. Symbolic black characters create less charged racial dynamics in movie story lines. When we evolve as a more racially and culturally empathetic union, realistic black subject matter, such as family drama and social justice themes, will be better received. Until then, the guides will lead the way.
 

Bjian C. Bayne is a founding member of the Travel Educators (www.traveleducators.com), a contributing essayist on The Root, and author of "Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball."