My top 5 Harry Potter-related accomplishments:
1. I invited J.K. Rowling to my wedding, and while she didn’t attend, I received a letter from Scholastic expressing her congratulations and best wishes.
2. I was chosen for the Ollivander’s wand demonstration at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The wand chooses the wizard! And the wizard tries not to wet her pants out of sheer glee.
3. I once pointed said wand across the room and said “Accio TV remote,” and I SWEAR it moved a little bit closer.
4. I wowed my third grade students by reciting the entire first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from memory.
5. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is an actual biography of my life. (Fact.)
In other words, I’m obsessed with all things Potter. So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out in theaters, my body was ready. My brain, however, was not.
As much as I love the Potterverse, the way race is treated in the series has always bothered me. Rowling, as do many authors, view whiteness as the default, the norm. Characters are white (and straight, and cis) unless otherwise stated. It’s why the first thing the reader learns about Dean Thomas is that he’s tall and black, while all we learn of Hermione’s physical characteristics are her brown eyes and bushy hair. When Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rowling seemed to imply that she purposely left Hermione’s race open to interpretation, saying, “White skin was never specified.” And yet, brown skin always is (or if it’s not, it’s made obvious through an "ethnic" name like Cho Chang or Parvati Patil).
I think it’s awesome that Cursed Child Hermione is black. What’s not so awesome is Rowling’s pretending that was her plan all along. It’s kind of like tripping over the curb and playing it off as an impromptu dance move, which I have definitely never done.
Fast forward to Fantastic Beasts. It’s 2016. The world is a little more woke. The Internet has called Rowling out on her clumsy treatment of race and her attempts at revisionism. Surely this new movie would learn from past mistakes and do better. Sadly, that was not the case.
Fantastic Beasts is a prequel to the Harry Potter series that follows the adventures of Newt Scamander, a wizard whose love for creatures that can rip your head off is second only to Hagrid’s. The movie is set in America in 1926, a time before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, and way before Barack Obama was president. Racism is alive and kicking.
In the movie, we learn that the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic is called MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), and its president is played by a black actress. At first, I was excited about the numerous possibilities available to rationalize how a black woman could logically be the leader of a government organization in the 1920s. Had the magical community already had its own Civil Rights Movement before the No-Majs—a.k.a. American Muggles—had theirs? Was she passing for white? The actress, Carmen Ejogo, could certainly pull it off.
Ironically, Ejogo has played civil rights activist Coretta Scott King in two separate movies.
Five months after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I still have no idea, because the movie gives no explanation whatsoever. We’re all just supposed to believe that in 1926, a year when there were people around who remembered what it was like to be enslaved because it wasn’t that long ago, it makes perfect sense for President Seraphina Picquery to be black (and a woman—that’s two strikes against her).
I will give Rowling credit for this: other types of prejudice within the magical community comprise a recurring theme, and one that is explored well. Many pure-bloods view themselves as better than wizards with Muggle ancestry, going so far as to have a derogatory slur for Muggle-borns. I mean, even one of the founders of Hogwarts was so butthurt that Muggles had the gall to occasionally give birth to magical children that he built a secret lair under the girls’ bathroom for the sole purpose of giving his giant snake a place to chill in between giving Muggle-borns literal death stares. Hermione is ridiculed for the mere suggestion that house-elves deserve to be paid a living wage. Werewolves and giants have to live in hiding, and Voldemort exploits their exclusion from magical society by promising them rights and power if they join the dark side.
So why couldn’t Fantastic Beasts build on this theme by extending the examination of prejudice to include racial prejudice? There was a time when casting a black actress was enough to earn a pat on the back for diversity, but approaching a historical time period with 21st century eyes and pretending nothing was different isn’t diversity, it’s colorblindness*.
Did this bother you? What steps can the sequel take to balance entertainment with staying true to the time period? Share your thoughts in the comments!
*I recognize that this is ableist language but haven’t been able to find a better word. Please suggest one in the comments!