[Ed. note: Since EW.com just revealed an exclusive first look at next year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we’re reposting this piece that originally appeared on The Mary Sue in September.]
All Potterheads were excited when it was announced that a new movie was coming out (even if we were sad it wasn’t a Marauders prequel). And some fans were excited because with a new cast, it meant an opportunity for people of color to become main characters in a series whose fans span the globe.
J.K. Rowling herself spurred many of the theories that Fantastic Beasts could feature a more diverse cast than the Harry Potter franchise. (The film series as a whole only features 0.47% of lines spoken by people of color, according to the Every Single Word video series.) Over on Pottermore, she described Newt Scamander’s (author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) grandson Rolf as “swarthy,” a word which means “dark-skinned.” Many fans figured this could mean that Newt himself could be black.
My favorite Newt fancast? Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Misfits.
Instead, the star of Fantastic Beasts is Eddie Redmayne, whose English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry make him the opposite of swarthy. Alright, fine. Newt is classic Caucasian British. So what about his wife? Could she be a person of color? Maybe played by the fantastic Gugu Mbatha-raw, who recently starred in Belle? Nope. Porpentina Goldstein (Newt’s wife according to the FBAWTFT textbook) is also white (played by Katherine Waterston).
And so far, the rest of the cast is equally white:
This isn’t an issue of fans wanting to racebend a white or default white character — a default white character meaning a character whose race/complexion/ethnicity is never specifically described but a majority of readers default to seeing them as white because we’re conditioned to imagine most characters as so if they are not specified. For example, Hermione is a “default white” character. She is never expressly described as Caucasian, her curly hair and often described “tanned” skin and freckles could be applied to many non-white ethnicities. We readers default to white even when we don’t need to.
Relatedly, Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games franchise is expressly described to be olive skinned, and it’s often implied she is of heavily mixed heritage but was cast as strictly white. Another instance where an opportunity to put in a person of color was omitted because we (even many people of color) default to white. (Even when a character’s skin tone is specified, many readers still default to white, as we saw after The Hunger Games movie was released and many fans were baffled that Rue was black.)
With the Fantastic Beasts script not based specifically on any book-written characters, this was a great opportunity to break our defaults and allow everyone to see the hero (or the hero’s love interest or the hero’s closest friends) as something other than white. So far, this isn’t the case.
It’s also not a matter of location. The story is said to be set in 1920s New York. Hypable broke down New York’s post-war diversity, making the claim that an all white cast doesn’t reflect historical accuracy, often the number one claim when someone defends an all-white cast:
“If Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a historically accurate story that happens to have fantasy elements then the casting should reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the period. If it is a fantasy story that includes historical elements but isn’t strict about accuracy then there is no reason for the casting to not reflect the diversity of modern audiences. On either front, it has failed.”
Besides, what’s one of the most famous things about 1920s New York? The Harlem Renaissance. Imagine it: a Leaky Cauldron/Star Wars cantina style speakeasy (remember: it’s Prohibition) up in Harlem where Redmayne’s Newt meets all sorts of different characters (muggle and wizard, human and non-human). Maybe even the speakeasy leads to an American Diagon Alley! But so far, one of the most diverse cities in the world remains white in a fantastical world to be filled with creatures and beings of all different types.
And, yes. “So far.” Jo recently took to Twitter to reply to a fan’s concerns that the cast is all white thus far.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 25, 2015
When MTV reported about the twitter interaction, they asked: Does her assurance quell your concerns about the apparent lack of diversity in Fantastic Beasts? Why or why not? The answer? No. Jo’s implication is that PoC characters might not arrive until the second or third movie in the franchise. This is the same old story. The people of color have to wait to be featured or even given a seat at the table. The Harry Potter franchise is the biggest in the world, there are fans from every country and even the Fantastic Beasts textbook features creatures from many different world cultures. The brand is so powerful that it wouldn’t have been taking a big risk casting PoC leads in the first film.
It feels like a lack of imagination on the parts of the producers. Only a lack of imagination imagines a magical world filled with only white characters. Only a lack of imagination imagines a world in which a PoC lead doesn’t bring in the same (or better) box office numbers as a white lead (see: everyone’s assertion that Idris Elba as James Bond would break the box office and bring new life to the series). It would have been a wonderful statement and a show of support for PoC fans of the series.
It’s a shame that PoC have to wait to be included. If FBAWTFT has people of color either in the script or have been cast, is it a secret? It seems that thus far the most important characters have been cast and announced, so any PoC characters would be relegated to world-fillers, comic relief, and other stereotypical roles. But maybe I’ll be surprised. Maybe the franchise will pull an Orange is the New Black. You start with the white characters, but fill the story with great PoC “side” characters who become a huge part of the series’ success and appeal.
Hopefully the sequels change that. Of course Newt is the star, but his travels could take him out of New York and across the globe. Maybe he heads to Africa to study the Fwooper, a bird that provides fancy quills, but whose song can drive the listener to insanity. Perhaps he heads to the Far East to find a Demiguise, the creatures that give us (because I’m a wizard too, obviously) invisibility cloaks. Or maybe to East Africa where he hears stories of the Nundu, one of the most dangerous creatures in the world as classified by the Ministry of Magic.
There are opportunities in the canon for the series to feature non-white people in major roles. I just hope that the producers take those opportunities. Or those PoC fans of the series who supported the Harry Potter series, despite their exclusion, won’t continue into the new one.