The Hunger Games: From the Dystopian to the Great Depression

The Hunger Games has a somewhat  integrated cast that includes African Americans: Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games, sure loves black people. And we love her too. I’m often critical of the relationships between African American and whites, along with stereotypes of African Americans in film, television, and literature. But The Hunger Games got it right. Cinna, an African American man and Katniss’ stylist, becomes the father she lost in the District 12 mines. Rue, the little African American wood elf, initiates an alliance with Katniss in the games-to-the-death. They find a sister in one another. Katniss in particular, embraces Rue much like the little sister Katniss left behind in District 12. There’s no patriarchy here where whites save African Americans. And the African Americans are not stereotyped as mammy’s or thugs. True relationships are established on film and experienced by the audience.

Without the relationships, the Orwellian dystopian themes typical of science fiction would not matter. The foundation of The Hunger Games is George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). He is the great granddaddy of dystopian science fiction in the form of the novel. 1984 is where we get the term Big Brother, the roving eye of technology that is always tracking us in the 21st century. We see much the same in The Hunger Games where even the trees have electronic eyes. And the world in The Hunger Games has gone to hell in a hand-basket, a post-war hand-basket in which the survivors live in a police state. If that isn’t Orwellian, I don’t know what is.

Oh, the first scenes in The Hunger Games are moving pictures that mirror the gritty still photos of rural people taken during the Great Depression. The pain, the seams in the faces of even the young remind me of Dorothea Lang’s “Migrant Mother.” In the film, the camera stops at a worn laced high-top shoe. It lingers on the wind in the trees. The people in District 12, Katniss’ little town, are a worn people, worn by mining. Those scenes, mirroring a Hunger Games Appalachia, are the most memorable in the film.

Katniss leaves home to fight as tribute in The Hunger Games. The trope of youth battling in games is not new going back to ancient Greece. There’s also a modern take which I believe is a nod to “The Most Dangerous Game,”  a short story by Richard Connell. In the story, one man hunts another. Ultimately, the hunted creates intricate traps to capture the hunter. Both the human-hunt and traps are echoed in the Hunger Games. Katniss did something similar turning the game on the elite, her captors and humiliating them.

Taken together, what does the Hunger Games say about contemporary American society?  The Great Recession of the 21st Century first comes to mind. Much like the children living in poverty in the 12 Districts and battling in the games, we are frightened at every turn by unemployment, high gas prices, and a depressed real estate market. The film reflects our national malaise. In addition, our children are consumed by technology and even in a virtual forest, the children in the games are moved around like puppets on strings among the trees and along the creek. As Americans, have we lost our rugged individualism, unquestioning puppets in the day-to-day drudgery of survival?

Hopefully, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the next novels in the trilogy will translate well, meeting the high expectations already met by The Hunger Games, the first in the trilogy.

Advertisements

The Film Thor: Place, Race, Family, and Terrorists

What does the film Thor have to do with black people? Well many people, including people of color, helped to make Thor the # 1 movies across the country in the past week.

Oh yeah, and  the fabulous Idris Elba as Heimdall, a guardian of the portals between worlds, had a small role! Some hardcore comic fans were not thrilled that Idris, a black man, portraying a Norseman. Read more in  an UK Guardian article.

Controversy around race and ethnicity never sleeps. Hey, it’s a film based on mythology and the comics. Mythology through the millennium has been fluid, keeping in mind that the stories of Thor are rooted in ancient Euro-Indo civilizations. Getting really technical, Euro-Indo civilization goes back to Africa, the cradle of all humankind and civilization on earth.

Marvel Comics and director Kenneth Branagh did not invent the Thor narrative. Thor is Norse, a god of thunder who wields a huge hammer that looks more like a mallet, part of Norse mythology. The god represents fertility, a shield to humanity, and lightening/storms–all woven into the film.

Ok, some less serious talk! Those of you who love the Marvel Comics universe, get ready to don you 3-D glasses. Thor, subtitled The God of Thunder on some of the posters opens in the night in the New Mexico desert. Later, we see the desert in the light, the stark beauty of sand and rocks, and wide expanses typical of the desert Southwest.  Throughout the film, the scenes shift back forth and forth from New Mexico on earth; Asgard, Thor’s home planet and site of his cathedral-esque city; and Jotunheim the Ice Planet and home of the Frost Giants.

The portals between worlds take the form of tornadoes, allowing Thor and the Asgards to travel through worm holes, short-cuts planet to planet. Each arrival is a whirling man-made tornado of warp travel echoing modern disasters like the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and more recent flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011.

Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth (remember him as George Kirk, James Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot?) hails from Asgard and is the protagonist. I’m using the word hails because Thor’s dialogue is straight out of Tudor England. And no wonder: we’d need subtitles for ancient Norse and director Branagh was weaned on Shakespeare in his many turns in Shakespeare on film including Hamlet. Gotta love that Middle English.

Branagh liberally borrows from the trope of familial violence in which men struggle for power, particularly a throne, from ancient Greek plays and Shakespearean tragedies.  For a more modern take, men and some women battle one another for the presidency of the United States, seen by some as the pinnacle of success in society. The battle of wills between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki, and the power struggle for the crown between the two sons is quintessentially human in and outside the family.

There’s a love story too, also very human: Thor falls in love with Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman. I thought that the relationship was under-developed and superficial. Girls likes hot hunky guy. Guy thinks winsome girl got sexyback. Girl and guy fall in love. Clearly, I was more interested in the family dynamics.

Of course evil takes many forms in the film. Such tension is necessary in mythology, literature, and film. The Frost Giants, much like their Ice planet  are chilling dark forms, the former dark grey massive icy humanoids and the latter a jagged place of dark ice. Science fiction is always a placeholder for current events. These giants are bound in America’s fears of TERRORISTS including Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps Loki, Thor’s brother, is a bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. America–much like the Asgard monarchy–has turned in on itself fearing the terrorist bogey man at every turn. And sadly darkness has long been used negatively in how people of color are seen and treated.

All-in-all the movie on the surface is not as complex or well crafted as the first Spiderman film and Dark Night series, but as one of the first blockbuster entries for the summer, it’s a fun light ride. Still we as film-goers can go deeper. As was true of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still, science fiction films mirror our deeper fears in society. The controversy of Idris playing a Norseman in a film is just one example.

Can a Year on a Farm Based on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Work?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steve L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007.    

Barbara Kingsolver says in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food, “Our culture is not acquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain food. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text.” (p. 67). I say both our land and the food produced on that land must be treated as unequivocally holy! 

 As I began to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I felt that the spirituality and holiness she describes is at odds with who does and doesn’t have accessibility to green places including farms. Certainly, the upper middle- or upper classes could pull off living off the land as an experiment.

I had another response to the book: I realized I shared some of Kingsolver’s ideological and practical concerns about American foodways. Louisiana Voices defines foodways as, “obtaining, preparing, serving food and stories and beliefs about food.”  Perhaps considering some of these concerns could be a bridge to the spiritual and holy when it comes to land and produce.  

Stepping back a bit, Kingsolver describes the purpose of her family’s foodways journey and book: “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. (p. 3). She got away from a life in Tuscon where distributors ship in food from far-away places and water is running so low that in the near future it will not support the existing population. Here are the costs: fuel must be purchased to ship the food and when water is diverted to desert places like Arizona someone else has diminished access to water.     

Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to the southern Appalachia to live off the fruits of their labor on a farm and limit their purchases to local farmers. The Kingsolver clan made it sound relatively simple: relocate and then experiment on the land for a year.   

 Let’s think it through. “A Year of Food” requires resources, which includes money for expenses, and comfortably owning or renting a working arable farm. Before actually arriving at a farm, the average working- to middle-class family would have to turn on the utilities in a new home–that would be the farm–which could be a challenge. One might ask: Can they afford the gas for the car to make the move? What about motels and food on the way? Can they pay the start-up for some of the utilities? Will they have to physically go and pay with cash or a money order to turn on utilities because of a poor credit rating that does not allow for easy transactions by phone, mail, or the internet? These are real questions and concerns for people living pay check to pay check. Forget actually getting to the point of owning a farm. Most people are not privileged. Kingsolver and her family already own a farm.   

Class is a factor. So too is ethnicity. The farm families around her were probably predominantly white though she is not explicit concerning this point. There is a tension here for me. I grew up in Queens, New York in Rosedale, a working class neighborhood of people of African descent. Later as an adult, I lived in Lawndale, California in a working class Latino neighborhood. I’m not sure if many of the people in either ethic group would readily relate to Kingsolver’s agricultural experiment. Some who work the land to survive might see it as a working holiday. The ethnic disconnect and lack of diversity was problematic, typical of broader environmentalism, including the foodway movements.    

With that said, Kingsolver gives the reader much to think about through her beautifully written prose. Many of her suggestions are achievable without going through the financial duress of relocating and purchasing a farm. Consider two ways or reconfiguring Kingsolver’s experiment for regular folks with finite resources.    

Green tomatoes: it's only June.

  • Farmers Markets: Kingsolver does rely on and support the local farmers market near her farm. You too can do the same since these markets are in many cities across the US. The other benefits are eating local organic foods, and diminishing the fuel used to transport produce. Right now I am in Tennessee and plan to visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market downtown.
  • Indoor Plants and Gardens: The author had a flower garden that was part of the farm. This is not an option for many people live in apartments in cities or townhouses in the suburbs. In both types of housing, keep indoor plants, some that flower for the aesthetics. Consider growing herbs in a box on a window ledge. When I lived in Los Angeles I kept orchids, African violets, and a bonsai. Plants, particularly flowering plants, bring a bit of nature’s beauty indoors, which I find soothing spiritually. Tending, watering, re-potting, and fertilizing plants is a break from hectic modern life. Community gardens in cities are another option working side by side with others or carving out a plot of your own. There are benefits to the physical labor of turning over the soil and weeding the rows of plants. At the end of the season, you can enjoy the produce, the fruits of your labor.

So there is a bridge between Kingsolver’s experiment and incorporating nature into the daily lives of regular people. 

Going a step further, I feel a connection with Kingsolver because of my own environmental concerns. I worry about the planet. I worry about the limits and our dependence on fossil fuels. I worry about how many Americans are disconnected from the land and don’t understand how plants actually get to the supermarket. 

Kingsolver develops a parallel argument: when the oil runs dry, and we have to return small-scale agriculture to sustain ourselves, we will not have the skills to produce much needed food in rural settings. 

Perhaps if we resolve to treat the land and our food as edible holy objects, we can save the planet for our children. 

Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover 

Inaugural Blog Carnival: Challenges of Doing Diversity and Environment

Welcome to my Inaugural Blog Carnival focusing on the joys and tribulations of doing diversity and the environment.

As an African American woman, it has been a long lonely difficult journey sharing the stories of African Americans and the environment. It has also been one of my greatest joys. My goal in my inaugural May 2010 blog carnival is for diversity/environmental bloggers to share their successes along with their trials and tribulations. We have been doing the good but difficult work of getting the word out about diversity and the environment. I invite and challenge you to come join with me to connect with people and find support in one another. Some are connected and others are not. For those who are connected, continue with me creating community. For those who are not, please do join in.

Please submit your blog at my Inaugural Blog Carnival: Diversity and Environment Challenges. The submission deadline is Friday, May, 21, 2010. The blog carnival will be posted on Monday, May 24, 2010.

Dianne Glave