Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Mockingjay takes us away from the arena of the first two films in the Hunger Games series and into a revolution. The film lurches between quiet moments and battles, peaceful riversides and an air raid. The audience constantly feels destabilized. Everything is in flux. Nothing seems certain. Mockingjay is dark, appropriately so. With the exception of a few humorous lines — a couple of which fall flat and are subsumed by the film’s darkness — Mockingjay commits to its tone. As a dystopian fantasy film, it strikes the right balance between mirroring a world that is familiar to us, a world that in fact, we recognize as our own, and placing enough distance between our world and Panem to demand we suspend our preconceived notions of what is possible.
I’m not a film critic, so instead of assessing the film aesthetically, I want to use the tools I do have as a revolutionary historian, to consider the contributions, weaknesses, and importance of the film to us and our world: a world in crisis and upheaval, a world in which revolution and rebellion can seem distant ideas until suddenly we find ourselves thrust into them, a world which will not stop and wait for us to address the inadequacies of our current level of political organization and preparedness. This is the first contribution to what I hope will be a debate in this magazine and elsewhere over the politics and meaning of this film.
Mockingjay Part 1 is part social commentary, part political argument. It plays as a call to rebellion; doesn’t hide the pain and sacrifice involved in demanding a different world. And because of that, and because it is so mainstream, it should be required viewing for everyone on the left.
“Are you coming to the tree?”
I saw the film on the day the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson was announced. Darren Wilson was let of the hook, like so many cops are, for murdering an unarmed young Black man. After walking out of the theater, I went straight to the demonstration at Chicago police headquarters. The palpable anger, boarded up windows, decrepit streets of Chicago’s South Side certainly evoke the world of Panem, and the defiant march that night in Chicago, which took over the major highway that runs along Chicago’s lakefront chanting, “You shoot us down, we shut shit down,” echoed the march of the people of District 5 as they confronted the Peacekeepers to shut off the Capitol’s power supply.
But if Mockingjay Part 1 – and the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy — has a weakness, it the refusal to discuss race. In the context of Ferguson, which has demonstrated to a new generation of activists , the omission is glaring. To their credit, the filmmakers go out of their way to emphasize visually that District 11 is a plantation, but beyond that, race is never mentioned (it’s also absent from the books).
Fans and critics have offered up various explanations: Panem might not have the same racist structures ours has; totalitarianism has pushed the living standards and democratic expectations of everyone so low that race no longer plays a decisive role in a character’s life experience; and perhaps the most generous explanation — Collins is weaving a story about the perils of colorblindness. As Imran Siddiquee noted in an article for The Atlantic, “While recent dystopias [like The Hunger Games] warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism.”
Yet Panem is a highly racialized society: the districts are segregated by race in a way that reflects the history and political economy of the world we live in now. Districts 11 and 12, are Black and white districts, meant to evoke Southern plantations and the coalfields of Central Appalachia respectively. District 8, where Katniss first visits the battlefield of the rebellion, produces textiles, and it’s inhabitants are an overwhelmingly of African and South Asian descent — not unlike the world’s textile sweatshops.
And this makes sense: Panem is a nation built upon the ruins of the United States, which Collins implies was destroyed by climate change, inequality, and the failures of human nature–namely what Collins sees as an innate human desire to obtain and hold on to power. Panem wasn’t the creation of revolution demanding equality and justice. No, the rise of Panem evokes the rise of fascism and all the horrors which accompany it. In this context, social oppression, particularly on the basis of race, would become more pronounced, not central to ruling class power, not less. District 11 utilizes racialized forms of violence and discipline — whipping in particular — long before they are brought to the other districts at the end of Catching Fire.
And if we step back for a moment, we see that even though Katniss Everdeen is the trilogy’s protagonist, Black rebellion is the driving force of revolution in Panem. While Katniss rebels against the Capitol individually in the arena, it is the death of Rue, a sweet, loving, twelve-year-old Black girl torn away from her family to fight in the Games, which sparks revolt.
The films’ rebellion sequences suggest that the revolt over Rue’s death is not an aberration, but rather suggests that District 11 provides the lead for rebellion, much like the Black working class leads social and workplace struggle in the United States. Today, we remark that a recession in white America means a depression for Black America. In Panem, a totalitarian state for all is particularly vicious for the nation’s Black residents.
And while borders can be redrawn, history can never really be erased, particularly the “unofficial” forms of history we imbibe each day: the turns of phrase which are racially coded, the stories we tell to understand ourselves, the songs we sing.
Which brings me to “The Hanging Tree,” the song Katniss sings while visiting her old home in District 12, and which becomes an anthem for the rebellion. The song is haunting, rebellious.
Oh, and it’s a song about lynching. It’s tempo evokes the work songs used by Southern field workers — overwhelmingly Black.
“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?” the song asks. “They strung up a man, they say who murdered three.”
When Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree” [in the novel], she notes that she hasn’t sung it “out loud for ten years, because it’s forbidden,” implying that it’s not only banned in the Everdeen house, but in Panem proper. Perhaps her father sang it around town to subtly alert other members of District 12 that he was revolutionary, willing to do whatever it took to stand up to the Capitol and create change. “They say he murdered three,” the song chants, its hearsay language confirming the often-manipulative accusations of the Capitol. This rebel song was concocted not about a desperate lover, but a revolutionary whose plea was for his neighbors to follow him toward freedom, no matter the cost. Even if it meant they might end up hanging by his side.
The sequence with the song is unbelievably powerful, but it’s also in many ways a lost moment, one pregnant with racial undertones. Particularly for anyone acquainted with the long and brutal history of lynching–and the struggle against it–in the United States, it’s jarring and unsettling to hear one of the most racialized forms of violence in American history sung about by a white woman in a film that won’t even tackle race.
“If we burn, you burn with us.”
Where Mockingjay Part 1 falls short in terms of race, it leaps ahead in terms of class politics and rebellion. When President Snow, in a moment of frankness with Katniss, points to the refusal of work as the most destabilizing thing that can happen in Panem, he echoes Karl Marx, who described capitalism as creating its own gravediggers. The Capitol, he claims, provides security and order, but order for whom? The only violence we’ve seen in the films so far has come at the hands of Snow and the Peacekeepers; they presume to provide order to the disorder they themselves have created.
But the heart of Mockingjay is a different aspect of such an exploitative and repressive system: it asks, what happens when this very fragile system is upended?
Mockingjay is the part of the Hunger Games trilogy where we get to see revolution on full display, and it is a glorious thing. The filmmakers also handle it in a very sophisticated way. For example, after the rebels broadcast a video of Katniss, who is enraged following Capitol bombing of a hospital, warning the Capitol “If we burn, you burn with us,” the narrative cuts to District 7, a lumber district. Long-festering anger is pushed over the edge when the Capitol extends all work-shifts by two hours, demands increases in productivity, and bans strikes. The workers use their superior knowledge of the forest to lure the “Peacekeepers” (the Capitol’s Stormtrooper-esque police force) into a trap. In other words, the broad politics of rebellion are interpreted and deployed in the context of the worker’s particular situation. They don’t get direction from District 13 on how to rebel. The rebellion is rooted in the working and living conditions of the District, and Katniss’s call gives them the link to the broader struggle they desperately need in order to not only rebel, but to win.
This approach to depicting rebellion is a breath of fresh air because it underscores that rebellion and revolution have material roots. Katniss’s attempts at staged propaganda for the rebellion fall flat because they’re abstracted from the realities of everyday life in Panem. Katniss’s anger, her rebelliousness–and the rest of the Districts’–are not generated on an abstract political basis, but rather emerge directly from being forced to live under a totalitarian regime.
But the rebellion in Mockingjay Part 1 is important for another, unforeseen, reason. The film was released as the question of rebellion has been thrust back into the forefront of people’s minds by the rebellion of people in Ferguson, a rebellion which has spread in the aftermath of the Grand Jury refusal to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who murdered unarmed 18 year old Mike Brown. In Mexico, there is a growing rebellion against the government as the crisis precipitated by the disappearing of 43 Mexican students from Ayotzinapa. In Hong Kong, protesters have continued to defy government repression to demand free elections.
And it’s not an idle connection drawn by a few. Mockingjay is a mainstream film, seen by millions, and already, connections in struggle have begun to emerge. In St. Louis, graffiti appeared on a monument quoting Katniss much like the lumber workers of District 7: “If we burn, you burn with us.” (With a useful “FTP” added for emphasis.)
The slogan emerged again at a demonstration against the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in New York City.
In a society moving in fits and starts toward a heightened level of social struggle, films like Mockingjay may be a first encounter with revolutionary politics for many. This is such an important film because it shows you can take on the most terrifying enemies, the ruthless state with its faceless henchmen armed to the teeth, and you can win. In this tumultuous political moment, where anger has festered into revolt but left and working class organizations are too small to agitate and organize on a mass basis, little could be more important on the cultural front than a mainstream film that valorizes rebellion, defying the rule of law, and disrupting power, by any means necessary, at its source.
Many thanks to Laura Durkay and Joe Macare, who provided helpful insight and conversation as I wrote this review.
Trish Kahle writer and labor historian based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in journals such as Callaloo and The Rio Grande Review and has received the Rondthaler fiction prize and the Niven Prize from the Center for Women Writers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.