Last year, when the cast list was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there were some grumblings, some raised eyebrows, that yet again J.K. Rowling’s magical world was looking a little too white. After Rachel Rostads challenge of Rowling’s Cho Chang as part of her critique of the representation of Asian women in media, and the racist backlash we witnessed after the wonderful Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in The Cursed Child, we expected, demanded, something different, more, from Fantastic Beasts. Reminding those racists that movie characters are not there to reflect just them.
Instead, so far in the Fantastic Beasts world, we have the main characters reflect a white, heterosexual audience. Take a look for yourself.
And, after the announcement of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald, many who followed his abuse case are feeling uncomfortable at the idea of yet another man in our mainstream media getting a free pass and continuing to be successful, all faults forgotten (see Michael Fassbender, Chris Brown to say the least). There have even been calls to boycott the movies since the announcement earlier this month.
Fantastic Beasts is a cacophony of themes and story lines and, although it doesn’t feel as smooth as it could have, it’s clear that this -kind of- mess is there to introduce the stories for the next five movies. Cutting through the noise is our chief theme and message: the repression of self, and the violence that can come from oppressive systems.
1920’s New York is a hub of diversity, being a city of immigration, cultural connection and seeing the blossoming of the Harlem Renaissance. Not that this means there wasn’t segregation, xenophobia and oppression of immigrants and people of colour, however, our Wizarding World is said to be more of a community:
“The wizarding world is a much more open and tolerant society where people of color and different ethnic backgrounds exist harmoniously together.” – David Heyman, Executive Producer
Why is it then, that in all of our main speaking characters (Scamander, Porpentina, Graves, Credence, Jacob, Queenie, Mary-Lou, and Seraphina) in the ‘Melting Pot’ of New York and Wizarding tolerance, there is only one actor who doesn’t appear as white?
Interesting. With the very real historic racism in 1920’s New York (and, in fact 2016 New York, too) comes our story’s repression of and hate towards Magical folk. In Fantastic Beasts our story centres on the anti-witch sentiment amongst No-Majs (American slang for Muggles). A movement grows, calling for the ‘Next Salem’ and the persecution of magical beings. We focus on a beaten and frightened youth whose magical powers are being repressed as we also, in tandem, explore the persecution of the magical creatures Newt Scamander spends his life protecting.
All of this brings up a wonderful talking point: intersectionality. Salem wasn’t just an oppression of ‘magic’, for those who studied it or just looked it up, we know that Salem came from a place of systemic misogyny and racism. For those who have studied Animal Rights and Feminist theory, we can draw the connections between animal abuse and misogyny. Understanding the interlinking of social issues – ableism, racism, sexism, classism, speciesism – is key in understanding them all further.
Our charmingly awkward Eddie Redmayne as Scamander sums up his feelings about the human race :
“They’re currently in alien terrain surrounded by millions of the most vicious creatures on the planet; humans” – Newt Scamander
Though he means this for the animals and creatures in his case, this quote is wider than him and his beasts, and indeed the movie. Humans have, historically, attempted to destroy that what is different, what could be a threat.
Towards the end of the movie, we even feel empathy for the violence that was born of an oppressive system; an understanding that lashing out can happen when you’ve experienced so much cruelty and in this we should be able to understand the anger, the passion, that comes with movements like BLM and NODAPL.
With everything that is happening in the US right now we look to all mediums to reflect the political climate and relevant current events. Fantastic Beasts, and its explorations of systematic oppression and repression of self, is an ideal platform to discuss racial violence, oppression of native peoples, violence against animals and the power of the wealthy elite. And I’m not talking a soapbox jarring speeches mid-movie, I’m just talking about diverse representation in casting and ways to reach out to audiences to get them to examine their own surroundings after the spell of the movie has been lifted.
This doesn’t mean I hate the movie. J.K. Rowling is one of my favourite authors, the Harry Potter world my second favourite fantasy world (Tolkien wins, sorry), and I will watch the next four movies with excitement. I mean, I wouldn’t have tried to go to the premiere if I wasn’t bothered (tried being to operative word, but we won’t get into the fact that it was tiny and completely closed-off).
I just feel that it is important to understand that it is okay to hold criticism for something you like, to understand that nothing is perfect. That it is possible to both enjoy something but see how it could have been more relevant, more real, more poignant in its message.
[On that note, my favourite part of the movie had to be the beasts, their cuteness, the creativity in their conception, the excitement when Newt’s case is more than it seems (that feeling we get when you saw inside the Tardis, or when Hermione pulled a tent out of her handbag)! The CGI was absolutely incredible, for both the creatures and of the destruction left in their wake. I would watch the movie a thousand times over just to see those scenes again.]