Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them recently began filming, but excitement for the prequel doesn’t cancel out disappointment in the casting. From the problems with “historical accuracy” argument to the importance of representation in media, let’s break down why this all white cast is such a big deal.
Last week I wrote about the important, confronting Every Single Word video series, which shows every word spoken by a person of color in a film or series. Although the Harry Potter films are by no means the worst offenders, they don’t fare very well. Only 5 minutes and 40 seconds of 1,207 minutes showed characters of color speaking (that includes the controversial shrunken head, and a centaur). That’s only 0.47% of the combined runtime across eight films.
In that article, I commented that the all white cast of Fantastic Beasts seemed to imply that the filmmakers — most of whom are returning after working on the Harry Potter films — have decided to do nothing differently for the prequel.
From the announcement of Fantastic Beasts, my enthusiasm has been uncontainable. I am a Harry Potter nerd and historian; a prequel set in the vibrancy of 1920s New York City is literally my dream come true. I spend most weeks trying to turn a section of Hypable’s Hype Podcast into a mini Fantastic Beasts podcast, and more time thinking about just how this story could play out.
Unfortunately all of the enthusiasm in the world doesn’t make Fantastic Beasts immune from critical thought. With filming now underway with an entirely white cast, it’s time to acknowledge that there is no real reason for the Harry Potter prequel to have been cast in this manner.
Casting Newt Scamander and the rest
I’ll begin with an admission of my love for Eddie Redmayne. I sat through Jupiter Ascending for this man, so you know I mean business. I do believe that Redmayne will be a fantastic Newt because he is a fantastic actor. But let’s not pretend like those fans who are less excited about his casting don’t have a point.
Back in 2014 and prior to any hint of Redmayne’s casting, J.K. Rowling released a new Harry Potter short story about the members of Dumbeledore’s Army as adults. Writing as horrible Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter, Rowling described Newt’s grandson Rolf as “swarthy,” a word most commonly used in the present day in a derogatory manner (because of course Rita Skeeter would be racist), which denotes dark skin or complexion. Read the excerpt below (emphasis mine):
“Last of the ringleaders of Dumbledore’s Army is, of course, Luna Lovegood (now married to Rolf Scamander, swarthy grandson of celebrated Magizoologist Newt).”
Some fans reasonably assumed that this could be a hint that the Scamander family was in fact not white, and that Newt’s casting would reflect this. After all, Rowling must have worked on the short story and the Fantastic Beasts screenplay at approximately the same time, and she is a producer on the film. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility to presume that “swarthy” was chosen for a specific purpose.
Redmayne’s casting put to rest such speculation. I understand the logic of casting an Academy Award winner to bring in an audience, but let’s be honest: even without Redmayne, this film is too big to fail. This is the brand new Harry Potter film we have all been waiting for, written by J.K. Rowling herself. Every Harry Potter fan in the world is going to go and see it, plus a good number of the mildly interested general public. I can safely say that there is no way this film won’t go on to be one of the top grossing films of 2016, and we don’t even know what it’s about yet. At this point, using Newt’s casting to bring in an audience is rather superfluous.
But if Rolf’s “swarthy” complexion clearly wasn’t passed on through Newt, then it could have been from his wife Porpentina, who will also appear in the film. Except then Katherine Waterston was cast in that role.
And the announcements just kept on rolling in. Next was Alison Sudol, then Dan Fogler, newcomer Faith Wood-Blagrove, star Colin Farrell, and most recently Ezra Miller and Jenn Murray. This isn’t a criticism of their acting abilities, merely a comment that they do all look remarkably, well, white.
Even those actors rumored to be under consideration were all white, including Dakota Fanning and Kate Upton, and Michael Cera and Josh Gad. Prior to Redmayne’s casting, we even heard rumors that Matt Smith was in talks. In fact, not a single actor of color has ever been mentioned in conjunction with the film, an omission that is at worst deliberate racial and ethnic erasure, and at best, incompetent ignorance.
The problem with ‘historical accuracy’ and fantasy
This is about the point when some people will start complaining about “historical accuracy.” As in, it’s historically accurate to have an all white cast because the majority of this era/society/city was white.
I find the historical accuracy argument an interesting one to introduce when talking about Harry Potter. I would even go so far as to say that it was irrelevant. If J.K. Rowling can add dragons, shape shifting people, and magic to her world, why can’t she add in characters from a diverse range of racial and ethnic backgrounds? If historical accuracy was truly the issue, you wouldn’t be reading about the Chosen One attending Hogwarts, you would go and read a history textbook. But you’ve chosen to read a fantasy book, so quoting census data seems somewhat incongruent with your reading choices.
Dylan Marron, creator of the Every Single Word series, summed it up nicely on Twitter:
To all those citing the census in defense of HP casting, my q: how many people on that census checked off wizard? muggle? Just curious.
— Dylan Marron (@dylanmarron) August 18, 2015
We are supposed to believe in the existence of centaurs, house elves, goblins, and werewolves, but not in witches and wizards who were anything other than white? Right, of course.
Marron was speaking about the Harry Potter series itself. But when it comes to Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the historical accuracy justification is actually more ridiculous. Why? Because an all white cast is not historically accurate for 1920s New York City. It isn’t even close.