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The Hunger Games: Blacks and science fiction


When author Suzanne Collins created the “The Hunger Games” trilogy, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem, she simultaneously created social debates on race. The fictional country consists of a wealthy capital and twelve surrounding districts. District 11 is the home of Rue and Thresh, who are supporting characters in both the book and the movie, and it is depicted as an area near what had once been Atlanta, Ga.

District 11 residents are portrayed as being dark-skinned and having brown eyes. They are unskilled and are housed in small rundown shacks. They specialize in harvesting fruit, managing crops and picking cotton.

They work from sunrise to sunset. The inhabitants–known as citizens of the district–have knowledge of herbs and keep a supply of medicinal leaves on hand for insect bites. Children work alongside adults and are excellent tree climbers, so they are used to pick fruit from branches that otherwise would be unreachable.

Like in South, citizens of the district are sometimes lynched, and everyone in town knows the song “The Hanging Tree.”

If any of the residents are caught stealing crops they are publicly whipped. District 11 maintains a large police force known as peacekeepers whose main duty is to suppress the residents. The fence surrounding the district is 30 feet high and topped with razor wire. Metal plates are located along its perimeter to prevent anyone from digging underneath the fence and escaping.

If it sounds similar to a history you’ve heard or known before, join the club.

“The description of Thresh and Rues’ hometown, District 11, has antebellum South written all over it,” says African American science-fiction aficionado and USC Professor Javon Johnson, who has read all three novels. Johnson says the American Library Association in its annual report on the state of the nation’s libraries ranked “The Hunger Games” third on its list of inappropriate reading and does not want to stock the trilogy in school libraries due to its racist and sexist views. But Johnson loved the movie and feels that it is a reflection of a part of our society that once existed.

The nation of Panem is governed by a repressive system, where citizens barely survive. Everyone is starving, with the exception of the people in the capital. As punishment for an attempted rebellion against the capital, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are selected by lottery to participate in the hunger games, a televised event. Participants must fight on an island controlled by the capital. Only one participant may remain alive.

Former motion picture industry prop and model maker and science fiction buff Alfred Johnson has also read the “The Hunger Games” trilogy, and has also worked on the movies “Aliens,” “Men in Black,” and was a prop builder on the NBC television series, “I Spy.”

The movie has become tremendously successful both commercially and socially.  It has surpassed $300 million in sales. It has spawned a rash of Tweets, e-mail and blog complaints. Many Whites, who probably have not read the book, are upset that Rue and Thresh are portrayed as Black.

A typical tweet states: “I’m still pissed that Rue is black.” Another states: “Why is Rue a little black girl. Stick to the book, dude.”

Alfred Johnson reacts to the “racist” rants criticizing “The Hunger Games” by people who seem to think that science fiction is the exclusive province of Whites.

“I do understand the passion of these individuals who are complaining and unhappy. They have been anticipating the release of the film,” says Alfred Johnson. “However, they need to realize we [Blacks] will exist in the future and should be represented as a race in science fiction.

“They must realize that science fiction is not exclusive to Whites and although we are not dominating the field in comparison to Whites and Asians we have had an association with the field ever since ancient times. There were Blacks who had been writing science fiction before Jules Verne. In ancient Egypt, we painted our walls with what appeared to be flying craft and other futuristic items. However, when we are involved in their sci-fi movies or print we are seen as invaders.”

Alfred Johnson has a point.

Ancient drawings found in North African tombs and excavated artifacts from historical ruins are remarkably similar to modern flying machines in that they are aerodynamically correct. Other artifacts resemble human forms in spacesuits.

However, no one has ever made the connection, according to South African science fiction writer and producer Ken Sibanda. “We are often overlooked in the literary field of science fiction,” he says.

Sibanda, who is currently producing a movie titled “Hannibal the African,” cites “brilliant science-fiction writers” like Martin Delany, who wrote “The Huts of America” in 1857, five or six years before Verne wrote “Five Weeks in a Balloon” in 1863. He also mentions Samuel L. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due.

The staff at Eso Won Books agree, saying that African Americans have published science fiction novels as early as the mid-1800s.
In an interview with the New York Science Fiction Review in 1998, Samuel L. Delany, who was first published in 1962, was considered the father of African American Science Fiction. In that interview, Delany is quoted as saying, “for better or for worse, I am often spoken of as the first African American science fiction writer. But I wear that originary label as uneasily as any writer has worn the label of science fiction itself.

“Among the ranks of what is often referred to as proto-science fiction, there are a number of Black writers. M. P. Shiel, whose “Purple Cloud” (1899) and “Lord of the Sea” (1901) are still read. He was a Creole with some African ancestry. Black leader Martin Delany (1812-1885) wrote his single and highly imaginative novel, still to be found on the shelves of Barnes & Noble today.

“‘The Huts of America’ (1857) is about an imagined successful slave revolt in Cuba and the American South, which is about as close to an science-fiction-style alternate history novel as you can get,”Delany said. “Other Black writers whose work certainly borders on science fiction include Sutton E. Griggs and his novel “Imperio Imperium” (1899), in which an African American secret society conspires to found a separate Black state by taking over Texas.

According to Pan African Film Festival founder Ayuko Babu, the first big screen science-fiction movies featuring African Americans were “The World, the Flesh the Devil” (1959), based on a novel by Shiel. “The World, the Flesh the Devil” starred Harry Belafonte as Ralph Burton, a mining engineer.  In inspecting the structural integrity of a coal mine, Burton becomes trapped underground.

“I think the audience expected the White coal miners to abandon him,” says Babu. “However, they attempted to dig him out.”

The plot takes place during a state of heightened international tension and a nuclear attack occurs while he is trapped in the subterranean mine. Underground and shielded from atmospheric radiation, Burton eventually digs himself out and realizes all the human race has perished. He searches cities that appear to be void of life and eventually finds a White female, Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens). Crandall falls in love with Burton. A third character, an injured White male, is later introduced. Crandall cannot control her attraction for the articulate, dark-skinned Burton and ignores the White character Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer).

Burton and Crandall care for Thacker until he is returned to health, but Thacker becomes upset by what he sees as miscegenation and provokes Burton. Both men eventually arm themselves and hunt each other through the lifeless streets of their post-apocalyptic world.

Toward the end, Thacker threatens to shoot Button, only deciding against murder after Burton throws his weapon down and confronts Thacker unarmed. Burton was influenced by a biblical verse, Isaiah 2:4, which says: “He will judge between the nations and settle disputes.” Burton and Thacker are joined by Crandall, and the three of them hold hands and walk down the empty streets together. The film ends with words “The Beginning” as opposed to “The End.”

The film, “First Spaceship on Venus” (1959), stars, among others, an African national, Julius Ongewe as Talua, a communications operator/technician. Taula is the first Black spaceman. The movie is another East German-Polish production, possibly a propaganda movie from the Cold War era. The Soviet Union (present-day Russia) was constantly pointing out America’s practice of lynchings and various civil rights violations against Blacks in the United States. Russia used such images to bolster its communist revolution across most Third World countries.

By producing a big-screen motion picture portraying a Black man, Asians, and women as astronauts, Russia sent a message to the world that we see all people as equal human beings, unlike the West.  A year after the Watts Riot, the “Star Trek” series would appear on NBC with a multi-ethnic cast. The plot involved a magnetic spool (tape recording) at the site of a meteor explosion in Siberia. Scientist believe it is from a destroyed Venusians spacecraft that was bound for earth. The series has an international crew of cosmonauts traveling to Venus.

“First Spaceship on Venus” was a big-budget film for its era. Unlike Belafonte, who continued to have a substantial film career, after “First Spaceship on Venue,” Ongewe  disappeared into obscurity.

Television science-fiction programs may have given African Americans their first positive image. Two articles that ran in 1963 support this. One gave the following description in reference to the series, “The Outer Limits”:

“Transcending the color barrier on the TV screen goes to the ‘Outer Limits,’ a 1963 ABC-TV sci-fi shocker,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. And the Nov. 8, 1963, edition of Time Magazine stated, “The Outer Limits is one of the television shows this season that allows Negro actors to cross the racial bar.

“On one segment, a Negro recently played a would-be Pierre Salinger, press secretary to a presidential candidate. Another Outer Limits episode will have a Negro astronaut on the moon.”

“The Outer Limits” was ABC’s answer to the “The Twilight Zone.” The 27th episode of “The Twilight Zone” on April 8, 1960, featured Black actor Ivan Dixon as Bollie Jackson, a washed-up boxer.

According to a professor at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Christine Cornea, Ph.D., a cinema analyst and author of Science Fiction Cinema, Dixon’s character was seen as a loser plagued with the physiological habits of an ex-junkie, winning a boxing match as a result of his young daughter’s boyfriend making a wish that he would win as opposed to him triumphing by natural boxing skill. Although the character Jackson may have been advanced for the time, it was still weighted with the stereotypical baggage given to African Americans during the turbulent ’60s.

In addition to writing science fiction novels or playing characters in science fiction movies, a series known as the “Planet of the Apes” may have attempted to open eyes to social consciousness, says Gary Prebula, Ph.D., cinema professor at California State University, Long Beach. Prebula believes that during the turbulence of the ’60s and until the ’70s “Planet of the Apes” reacted to an important social movement of that era–civil rights.

In “Planet of the Apes” (1968), American astronauts crash-land on a planet run by apes who have enslaved humans. The apes see humans as inferior beings with no rights, just as African Americans were viewed by mainstream America. The police apes are significantly darker than the rulers and scientists.

These darker, armed apes can easily be read as symbols of the Black Power movement, and their domination of Whites as either positive or negative, depending on the viewer. To drive home the film’s civil rights subtext, in one scene fire hoses are turned on unruly humans. Prebula maintains that viewing apes as African Americans would be politically incorrect. However, scenes of attacking dogs and fire hoses could not have failed to put some viewers in memory of the American South. Prebula remembers independent science-fiction producer John Sayles, whom he feels produced one of the few progressive science-fiction films of the 1980s., about a humanoid Black alien slave fleeing White alien bounty hunters.

The Black alien crash-lands in New York City and takes up residence in Harlem among other African Americans.