9:45 am EST, December 21, 2015

Why a black Hermione Granger in ‘Cursed Child’ is okay (and important)

J.K. Rowling "loves" black Hermione, and you should too.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has its golden trio, but all attention is on Hermione Granger actress Noma Dumezweni.

The casting of the Harry Potter trio in the Cursed Child sequel set to premiere this summer on London’s West End has the internet aflutter. A quick recap: The History Boys’ Jamie Parker is our adult Harry, London Road’s Paul Thornley is Ron, and Doctor Who’s Noma Dumezweni will play Hermione. So what’s the problem? They aren’t all white.

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The idea of Hermione Granger as black is not revolutionary, indeed it has been floating around in the Harry Potter fandom for years. Hermione as a woman of color has featured prominently in fan fiction and especially in fan art; as far as superfan “headcanons” go, in many circles it is a relatively well accepted one. But the idea hit mainstream attention when Alanna Bennett published an article on BuzzFeed explaining What A “Racebent” Hermione Granger Really Represents, and suddenly everyone had an opinion.

As Bennett points out, there is very little physical description of Hermione given in the Harry Potter books, and certainly nothing to indicate that she is definitely white. It’s a fact Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling reminded us of this morning when she tweeted in support of the casting.

Given this ambiguity of appearance, why are people so up in arms? And why is this such a big deal? Because by casting Dumezweni in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling is approving Hermione being black as canon. Let me repeat that: The Cursed Child makes black Hermione Granger canon. Let that sink in.

This change might prove to be a struggle for some Harry Potter fans. And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being taken aback by casting that doesn’t fit your own mental image of a character. We were given no specific description of Hermione in the Harry Potter books, and therefore readers were able to interpret her in whatever way they chose. It’s unsurprising and completely normal that we should all imagine a slightly different Hermione Granger.

Unfortunately, but self-evidently, when there is no description, white becomes the default. Sometimes it’s the default even when there is a contrary description. The casting of the Harry Potter films cemented the belief for many fans that the trio (and, you know, almost everyone in the Wizarding World) was white.

cursed child hermione granger black

What’s the problem with black Hermione Granger?

‘She isn’t Emma Watson’

For those fans who grew up on the Harry Potter films, perhaps it is difficult to separate the actors from their characters. For many, Emma Watson didn’t just play Hermione, she was Hermione. But just as Watson might be your Hermione, that doesn’t mean she is someone else’s — or everyone else’s.

As someone with very little allegiance to the Harry Potter films, it is much easier for me to divorce the film cast from my perception of the characters. When I read the Harry Potter series, I certainly don’t picture Daniel Radcliffe, or Alan Rickman, or Emma Watson. But regardless of whether you liked or loathed them, the Harry Potter films are not canon. They are interpretations and adaptations, attempts to bring our beloved characters to life in a new format.

In reality, Cursed Child owes nothing to the Harry Potter films. Just as Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a film prequel to the Harry Potter books, so too is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a sequel to the book series. The films are separate entities, as is their casting, and we shouldn’t expect Cursed Child‘s cast to correlate. Noma Dumezweni not looking like Emma Watson is therefore simply not a justifiable issue to take with the Cursed Child casting.

Because this isn’t really an issue of film continuity. Few are complaining that Jamie Parker doesn’t look like an older Daniel Radcliffe, or that Paul Thornley has an obviously different build to Rupert Grint. If the problem was continuity, surely people would take equal issue with these two white, male actors as they have with Dumezweni. Unsurprising, that has not been the case.

‘She just isn’t my Hermione’

How about those fans who don’t want Dumezweni to look like Watson, but who still don’t believe she can play the smartest witch of her age? Luckily for us, Dumezweni is an award winning actress and a veteran of the stage; no one is really questioning her abilities, which makes this all the worse. We haven’t even seen her in the role yet, and fans are already claiming that she couldn’t possibly be Hermione.

There is literally no way for us to know yet whether Dumezweni can portray the Hermione we loved so much in Rowling’s books, but given the acting prowess she has demonstrated again and again over the course of her career, we have no reason to believe she can’t. After all, why else would they have cast her? No actor is going to perfectly match the individual image of a character we have in all of our heads, and expecting them to is an impossible task. This, then, is also not a real grievance.

black hermione granger cursed child

‘This casting is forced diversity’

The final criticism is that Dumezweni’s casting is some kind of forced diversity. Again, this is only an issue if we presume that Hermione should be white, which as I have discussed, is not the case. Still, even if Dumezweni was cast as the result of an intentional search for a black actress, rather than of color-blind casting for the perfect person (as is a reasonably common practice on the stage), why does it matter?

It matters because whether we want to accept it or not, this is an issue of race. The fact that of the 1,207 minutes the Harry Potter films run for, only five minutes and 40 seconds show people of color speaking is a problem. The fact that the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them cast is almost entirely (and historically inaccurately) white is a problem.

The current standards of representation in film and television are problems. And women of color are some of the biggest sufferers. Last year The Representation Project found that of the top 500 films of all-time, only six starred a woman of color — and astonishingly, only one of these six was a live action film.

This isn’t forced diversity because — say it with me — there is no indication that Hermione is white. Also, this isn’t discriminating against white actresses because, as a reminder, reverse racism does not exist. This also is not a case of retconning previous characters or events to inject diversity after the fact, something Rowling has grappled with in the past. Telling us later that Dumbledore is gay, or that Anthony Goldstein is Jewish, is not the same as writing this diversity into the books. These revelations certainly comforted and inspired many Harry Potter fans, but that doesn’t make them the same as actual representation.

cursed child hermione granger

But that is not what is happening here with Hermione. Hermione Granger being black is not a problem; it’s a revelation. It isn’t a retcon of the character; we may not have been told that she is black, but we have also been told nothing to indicate that she should be anything other than black.

When it comes to diversity, the Harry Potter films certainly failed, and the books could have done better. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the opportunity to do that. As Alanna Bennett wrote, imagining Hermione as a woman of color opened up new avenues of subtext to her struggles as a Muggleborn. This new layer of race only adds to Hermione’s character, so why are some fans so hesitant?

Perhaps they feel that by making her black, Hermione is somehow less relatable for them. No matter if she is white or black, I can look at Hermione and feel the same affinity I did when reading the Harry Potter books. I love Hermione, but I also have Peggy Carter, and Rey, and Leslie Knope. By casting a woman of color as Hermione, we open up the possibility to those fans, like Bennett, who thought they could never really be Hermione.

This is why Noma Dumezweni’s casting is so important. We should all be able to see ourselves in the stories we love, and Hermione Granger is no exception. We aren’t owed a white Hermione forever just because Emma Watson played her. We don’t lose anything by making Hermione black, on the contrary, we gain so much more in the added layers of characterization and the possibilities for more inclusive imaginings.

And anyway, because I’ll be repeating this on my deathbed, it isn’t like this casting goes against any Harry Potter canon. The Harry Potter books don’t tell us Hermione is white; J.K. Rowling hasn’t told us Hermione is white; and the Harry Potter films aren’t canon. Those who still have an issue with this casting should reexamine the cause of their criticism, because it seems that there is really no other basis for this backlash than the color of Dumezweni’s skin. It is, pardon the phrase, fairly black and white.

In the meantime, meet your Hermione Granger. She is black, talented, beautiful — and the only place she is going is to London for her West End opening in 2016, so get used to it.


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