Update 11/25/16: The original version of this post stated that Tina was simply white. I have since realized that Tina’s full name is Porpentina Goldstein, and that she and her sister Queenie are likely of Jewish descent (and thus both have only conditional whiteness). I have updated the post with this information in mind.
The Harry Potter universe is a world that’s followed most of us since we were kids. While in many respects it’s aged along with us — we see Harry grow up and have kids, and the film Fantastic Beasts is certainly aimed at an older audience — in other aspects it has remained disappointingly behind the times. In particular, Fantastic Beasts is yet another example in the Potterverse of how marginalized folks, particularly queer people and/or people of color, continue to be exactly that: marginalized.
Like with the X-Men, wizards in the Potterverse have always been coded as an analogy for marginalized people. They’re born that way, are often misunderstood and persecuted, and find the most acceptance among other wizards. (Fantastic Beasts takes this one step further by also making marriage between wizards and non-wizards in America illegal.) It’s maddening, then, that actual marginalized people end up being so few and far between in these stories.
In the past I’ve written about the ways that specifically Asians were sidelined in the original series, but let’s rehash all the diversity stats here: Cho Chang was the most foregrounded character of color in the entirety of Harry Potter, and she was quickly written out in favor of Ginny Weasley. The Patil twins barely spoke. The Black characters we’re aware of were all periphery characters (with many having a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the films): Angelina Johnson, Lee Jordan, Dean Thomas, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Blaise Zabini. There were not any outwardly stated characters of Latinx, Pacific Islander, or Indigenous descent. The series had no main characters with a disability.
In 2014, Rowling sent a confusing tweet that claimed there was a single Jewish student at Hogwarts: Anthony Goldstein, who I’m sure absolutely nobody remembers. And we know now the only queer representation we got was apparently with Dumbledore, revealed only after the entire series was over.
When Cursed Child, a Harry Potter stage play about the trio as adults (written by Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany) was released, many hoped it would improve on Harry Potter’s lack of diversity. When actress Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione for the play, it seemed we were finally being written into the narrative. And yet it’s clear from reading Cursed Child that it was written with a white default in mind (meaning we really have the casting director to thank for Dumezweni.) The only character of color that appears in the entire work is Padma Patil: she appears in one possible future as married to Ron Weasley, but when the characters close out that future because it’s so terrible, Padma gets erased from the story. And of course the story was heavily criticized for obviously queer-baiting the two main male characters, with no actual textual queer representation in sight.
And then we get to Fantastic Beasts. Even before it’s release, the film had caused major concern when Rowling released a series of backstories on Pottermore titled “A History of Magic in North America,” which essentially posited the harmful stereotype that Native Americans are magical beings. When actual Native Americans protested this depiction, many in the Harry Potter fandom were quick to attack them as being overly sensitive and nitpicky, and Rowling never officially addressed their concerns.
And then they released the list of main cast members, and it confirmed what we were all fearing: despite being set in New York in the 1920s, the main cast is predominantly white. (Many were particularly disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t just go with a man of color for Newt Scamander, as he’s a relatively unknown character anyway, and it was an opportunity to do something different.) While I’m holding out hope for more diversity in future installments, as of right now Fantastic Beasts does little to improve on its predecessors.
Let’s just get this out of the way real quick: Fantastic Beasts does not feature any visible characters with a disability. Notably, Tina and Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalski are all characters of Jewish descent (with Jacob even featuring Hebrew characters in his bakery). There are no other characters with an outwardly stated religion. There are no stated queer characters. There is a bit of queer subtext between two male characters, but it’s disappointingly between — wait for it — two of the villains, and it’s clearly depicted as an abusive relationship. I have no words.
The one outstanding character of color we have is Madam President Seraphina Picquery of the Magical Congress of the USA, played excellently by Carmen Ejogo.
Seraphina is calm, commanding, and elegant, and it’s clear she’s being set up to play a major role in future films. I’m excited for when that time comes. But for now, for most of Fantastic Beasts’ run time she’s relegated to being mostly on the sidelines — this story’s stubborn Cornelius Fudge, if you will, as she refuses to believe the Big Bad is in NYC until Newt helps to reveal it right in front of her eyes.
Seraphina also has a bevy of Aurors, some of whom are people of color. While, again, I am excited they’ll play bigger roles in future films, in Fantastic Beasts they’re mostly seen and not heard.
In one scene we do get a glimpse into a room that looks like a magical United Nations. Here we see a full degree of racial diversity on display, and yet almost none of them except Seraphina speak at all. We do see Gemma Chan, the wonderful main actress from AMC’s Humans, in a terribly small role. She speaks maybe two lines and spends the rest of the time looking disapprovingly at Newt. We can only hope that Chan will be given more to do than just stand there looking imposing in future films.
And then from there we devolve into troubling bit parts for the other characters of color. Miquel Brown plays a magical executioner who smiles unnervingly at Alison Sudol’s Tina (Newt’s love interest in this story) while she goads Tina into essentially killing herself.
Aretha Ayeh plays a goblin singing in a magical speakeasy. This single inclusion was maddeningly confusing and unnecessary. The goblin is clearly coded as Black, which forces us to contemplate the confounding question of whether or not goblins even have ethnicities. In a film largely lacking in people of color, was it necessary to have a goblin, of all things, be coded in this way? Why in the world couldn’t Aretha Ayeh have just played an actual human woman?
And then there’s Leta Lestrange, the woman Newt is clearly still in love with. She’s played by Zoe Kravitz and in Fantastic Beasts is seen only briefly in a photograph. Director David Yates has confirmed she’s going to feature heavily in the sequel, which gives me some hope.
The downside? Leta may end up being the poor Cho Chang of this tale: Yates describes her as a “tragic figure” who is “damaged and confused.” Tina’s sister describes Leta as “a taker,” and that Newt really needs “a giver” — in other words, Tina, the sweet, non woman of color. And then of course, there’s the fact that her last name is Lestrange — remember Bellatrix? If the Leta/Newt/Tina triangle plays out as expected, this will be the second time in the Potterverse that a white male protagonist ends up with a white woman because his first love with a woman of color was the wrong fit (because she’s mentally unstable, to boot). Or if we’re counting Cursed Child, it would be the third time, as the future where Ron ended up with Padma was considered the wrong future.
On top of all of this is the overarching question of why we saw virtually zero non-magical people of color in Fantastic Beasts, and why more of the main magical characters couldn’t simply have been people of color. Why is it so often that when there’s a film that uses an analogy for marginalized people — X-Men, The Hunger Games, Fantastic Beasts — the actual “marginalized people” are almost always predominantly played by white, straight, cis, able-bodied actors? As for logistics: as much as I love Seraphina, how is she the head of MACUSA when it’s still the 1920s in America? Sure, she’s a wizard, but to non-magical Americans she’s still a Black woman in the 1920s, you guys. The years of race riots and Jim Crow laws still existing. How does she move through the world outside of magical spaces? Are we to believe wizards are less racist? If so… why is the wizarding world that we’ve seen so far still so damn white?
This is a question I wrestle with constantly with fiction set in the past — is it better to acknowledge race, or leave questions of it at the door and let people of color enjoy some stories without having to think about the constant overbearing weight of discrimination? For example, Magnificent Seven did not actually acknowledge the fact that Denzel Washington’s Chisolm was a Black man in the 1800s, and yet, in my humble opinion, the story did not suffer for it. Would it be better if we actually saw racism at play in the Potterverse? Or simply filled more roles with actors of color and didn’t bat an eyelash about it, a la Angel Coulby playing Guinevere in BBC’s Merlin? Or really, do both?
I don’t know if I have an easy answer for any of that. I do know that while Fantastic Beasts is a good film with incredible effects, the series is still failing it’s characters of color and other characters of marginalized identities. I know Rowling needs to try harder now — maybe hire writers of diverse identities as consultants — to continue to be relevant as time goes on. I’m still cautiously interested to see where this tale goes (and would be more interested if they recast Grindelwald, for god’s sakes), but seriously, Rowling. Consider bringing those out on the margins into center text, for once.