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This book explores cultural conceptions of the child and the cinematic absence of black children from contemporary Hollywood film. Debbie Olson argues that within the discourse of children’s studies and film scholarship in relation to the conception of “the child,” there is often little to no distinction among children by race—the “child” is most often discussed as a universal entity, as the embodiment of all things not adult, not (sexually) corrupt. Discussions about children of color among scholars often take place within contexts such as crime, drugs, urbanization, poverty, or lack of education that tend to reinforce historically stereotypical beliefs about African Americans. Olson looks at historical conceptions of childhood within scholarly discourse, the child character in popular film and what space the black child (both African and African American) occupies within that ideal.



Chapter 1. Introduction

On 23 March 2012, the much-anticipated film version of Suzanne Collins’ popular young adult novel Hunger Games was released in American theaters. As of 14 November 2014, the film had earned over $600 million worldwide (boxofficemojo.​com). David Daniel with CNN reported that Hunger Games had the third largest opening day in US box office history.1 Along with the normal hype that accompanies the release of a Hollywood blockbuster came a very vocal backlash among some of the Hunger Games fan base. According to Dodai Stewart, writing for, a blog on Hunger Games (http://​hungergamestweet​s.​tumblr.​com/​) revealed a growing and disturbing racist reaction to the casting of black actors in key roles in the film. Much of the racist commentary originated as single-line tweets on the social website Twitter, but quickly went viral across the Internet when a fan of the Hunger Games books began compiling screenshots of the racist Twitter comments using the blogging platform Tumblr.2 Some of the Twitter comments are as follows:
“why does Rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” (Maggie Mcdonnell, @maggie_mcd11)
“cinna and rue werent supposed to be black/why did the producer make all the good characters black smh” (Mari)
“EWW rue is black?? I’m not watching” (Joe Longley, @joe_longley)
“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad” (#ihatemyself, Jashper Paras, @jashperparas)
“nah, I just pictured darker skin, didn’t’ really take it all the way to black” (Jordan Wright, @JBanks56)
“rue is black?!?! Whaa?!” (@MAD_1113)
“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture” (Alana, @sw4q)3
One common thread running through these remarks is the surprise that a black girl would play an “innocent child,” despite the fact that the author’s description in the novel specifically described Rue as having “dark brown skin.” Maria Tatar in “Little, Blonde, Innocent, and Dead,” observes that the criticism of the film by fans was not directed at the “sacred prohibition against the onscreen killing of children” that comprises the film’s plot, but rather was because those children themselves violated the expected ethnicity of the sympathetic character or the hero. Tatar observes how, culturally, it is the deaths of blonde girls that most often capture media attention; there is rarely a national media blitz for missing young black girls (or boys, for that matter).4 Tatar suggests that such attitudes about who is innocent and who is not, who should be the hero or the savior, can be traced back to the literary depictions of two young girls: Little Eva, the golden-haired, angelic child, and Topsy, the orphaned and abused slave child, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, standard reading in most American literature survey classes. As Tatar describes:
In a spacious bedroom decorated with white muslin curtains, an alabaster desk, and marble vases, the dying Little Eva, pale and pious, distributes locks of her golden-brown hair along with nuggets of Christian wisdom. Her blondeness is linked with beauty and fairness, in all its semantic nuances … ‘There stood the two children, representatives of the two extremes of society. The fair high-bred child, with her golden head, her deep eyes, her spiritual, noble brow, and prince-like movements; and her black, keen, subtle, cringing, yet acute neighbor’ … Stowe was most likely seeking to extend the protective energies generated by beauty to an innocent victim of social injustice, and indeed Topsy, against all odds, survives, and has the chance to be ‘an angel forever.’ ‘Just as much as if you were white,’ Eva reassures her, using a phrase that makes alarm bells go off in our heads.5
Tatar quotes Stowe’s juxtaposition of the two children only in part; the rest of that passage from Stowe continues: “There stood the representatives of their races. The Saxon, born of ages of cultivation, command, education, physical and moral eminence; the Afric, born of ages of oppression, submission, ignorance, toil, and vice!”6 Though these descriptions of the two races are over 100 years old, they are still repeated daily in the ways that visual media articulate, to use Stuart Hall’s notion, children from the Global North and the Global South.
Debbie Olson

Chapter 2. Establishing the Discourse of the Child

This chapter explores the foundations of the discourse of the child and how it constructs US childhoods, children, and non-children in the popular imagination. The chapter also discusses the notion of innocence and its connection to the modern visualization of black children—African American and African—including the black child image in popular digital culture and in Hollywood film.
Debbie Olson

Chapter 3. African American Girls in Hollywood Cinema

Olson discusses gender as a key part of the stereotypes about black children. She presents a detailed look at the mammy, Jezebel, and pickaninny stereotypes and offers detailed analyses of films that draw attention to the ways black children are positioned using these characterizations: Lee Daniels’ Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Butter.
Debbie Olson

Chapter 4. Boys in Black and the Urban Ghetto Child

In this chapter Olson explores the stereotypes about black boys, particularly within discourses of crime and violence. Olson explores the relationship between Blaxploitation films and modern depictions of black youth. She argues the historically negative depictions of African children have not changed much since colonial times.
Debbie Olson

Chapter 5. Soldier Bo(d)y: The Transnational Circulation of the African (American) Savage Child Image

Olson looks at the ways African childhood is depicted in Hollywood cinema throughout history. She connects these portrayals to the ways that black children are still depicted in film today. Olson here discusses the film Invisible Children and the cinematic reach of the white savior ideal. In this chapter, Olson connects the stereotypes about Africa and Africans and argues that these stereotype’s form the basis for the cinematic trope of the African child soldier.
Debbie Olson

Chapter 6. The Black Child Star

This chapter explores the rise of Jaden Smith, son of actor Will Smith, and his position as a transnational black child star. Olson looks closely at Jaden Smith’s film After Earth and concludes by asking whether American culture is close to accepting the notion of a black child hero in Hollywood cinema.
Debbie Olson

Erratum to: Black Children in Hollywood Cinema

Without Abstract
Debbie Olson


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