Channeling Our National Fascination with 'Hunger Games' Into America's Real Rampant Economic and Social Inequality

Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and a dozen other labor leaders shared selfies showing themselves giving a three-finger salute. If you’re asking yourself what a three-finger salute is, you probably weren’t one of the millions of people who packed theaters this weekend to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

The film, based on the second book of the best-selling series of the same name, is set in a society of rampant economic and social inequality. In the story, the Hunger Games is a glamorous televised gladiator-type competition in which poor children become celebrities fighting to the death. The hero is Katniss Everdeen, a Hunger Games winner who inspires the resistance. The three-finger salute is how the people show support for Katniss, an outsider like them, and for the cause.

Trumka shared the selfie as part of a campaign created by Andrew Slack, a Nathan Cummings Foundation fellow. The campaign, Odds In Our Favor, includes a website where fans of the book and film, who are mostly teens and tweens, can raise awareness about the dangers of the systemic inequality we face here and now.

Slack is launching the Imagine Better Network through his fellowship. The Network will build on the work he and his colleagues are doing at the Harry Potter Alliance, organizing a huge community of fan activists to create change in the real world. In an L.A. Times op-ed, he wrote that “fantasy does not provide us with an escape from reality but an opportunity to go deeper into reality.”

At the Nathan Cummings Foundation we have long understood the power of art and culture to increase awareness, cultivate radical empathy and catalyze change. As we like to say, “cultural change precedes policy change.” That’s why we gave one of our first fellowships to Andrew Slack and why we continue to invest in risk-taking, innovative and unconventional thinkers like him.

The Hunger Games is a rare opportunity. Katniss is a particularly compelling hero because she is a reluctant leader. She lurches between fits of strength and feeling like a pawn. Katniss is just a young woman who wants to protect her family and live a normal life. The sincerity and authenticity of her leadership inspires. When we leave the theater, we can each take a page from Katniss’ book and be the rebel mockingjay. We can give the three-finger salute. We can allow ourselves to be moved by the sufferings of others and do something to challenge the system that perpetuates injustice.

The film’s message about poverty and inequality is powerful. But will viewers see parallels between the futuristic Panem and its predecessor, today’s America? Will its most devoted fans? The video created for the Odds In Our Favor campaign does a brilliant job connecting future and present, fiction and reality. Imagine if this film inspired thousands of people to engage in one of the many ongoing efforts to end poverty and reduce inequality?

There is work to be done if the odds are ever to truly be in our favor, whether it’s leading the way on raising awareness about hunger among children, examining the current minimum wage, or asking critical questions about food stamps.

The movie is a teachable moment on a scale that is hard to imagine. What happens to children in the story is so stark and appalling it is tempting to relegate it to the world of fantasy, where it belongs. But children are suffering today. We can do something about it. And that is no fantasy.

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