What did 1920s New York City really look like
What do we know about Fantastic Beasts so far? When the film was announced, we were told it would be set approximately 70 years prior to the events of Harry Potter, placing it roughly around the 1920s. Since then, Rowling has teased us with a mini-synopsis:
“Newt only meant to stay in New York for a few hours. Circumstances ensured that he remained…”
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The New York City in which Newt will be detained was a bustling, multicultural metropolis. By 1920, over approximately 40% of the city’s population were foreign born. These immigrants included a large Jewish population. We now know that this will be reflected by the lead characters, as Rowling has revealed that sisters Tina and Queenie are Jewish, with the surname Goldstein (yes, distantly related to Dumbledore’s Army’s Anthony Goldstein).
Well, I think it's widely known that that characters of (Porpen)tina and Queenie are sisters, but not that their surname is Goldstein.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 15, 2015
Beginning in approximately 1918, at the end of World War I, New York City saw the emergence of a new movement of African American culture. The Harlem Renaissance was named for its roots in the Harlem district of New York City, although it embodied ideas that were developing across the United States. African American intellectuals, writers, musicians, and artists flocked to Harlem; so much so that by the early 1920s, Harlem was populated almost entirely by black residents. Jazz and blues provided the soundtrack of the day, and the hottest musicians were all African American: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington.
The social context of the period also encouraged venues where white and black residents could mix. From 1920 until 1933 while Prohibition was in place, the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. During this period Harlem quickly filled with speakeasies, with approximately ten in every square block. These venues welcomed racially diverse crowds who came together in search of a cheap (and illegal) drink.
If Rowling and the filmmaking team of Fantastic Beasts want to set Newt’s story against the bustling backdrop of 1920s New York City, then they need to reflect the realities of the period.
If the Fantastic Beasts soundtrack is jazz and blues-inspired, then we should see the black musicians who performed this music. If Newt visits the underground speakeasies (which he would be likely to given the period) we should see the diverse clientele in attendance there. If Newt, a young intellectual and scholar, is running around New York City searching for his fantastic beasts, then he should engage with the intellectuals of the day, many of whom were African Americans involved with the Harlem Renaissance.
Why does any of this matter?
A recent report found that of the 100 top-grossing fictional films in the United States in 2014, 73.1% of characters were white. Characters from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups were leads in only 17 of the 100 films. 17 films didn’t include a single black or African American speaking character, and over 40 didn’t include an Asian speaking character. You can see the breakdown of these statistics below:
If this same study is conducted again for 2016, there is no doubt that Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them will make the list. It could even top it, if not beaten out by hotly anticipated superhero entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Captain America: Civil War. And when it is included, what will it contribute to this study? Another hit film with no leads or supporting characters of color, even after the Hollywood Diversity Report recently found that it is the films with the greater racial and ethnic diversity that are earning the most revenue.
Representation matters. And as a wise person once said before everyone on Twitter copied them (seriously, who said it first?), if you don’t think representation is a big deal then it’s probably because you’re already represented.
This isn’t about diversity for the sake of diversity (and also, is that truly a bad thing?). True representation is about challenging the notion that the default condition is white, male, and straight. It is about challenging what we think of as normal.
Think of every young girl who read the Harry Potter series and knew that it was okay to be clever, and to worry more about grades than looks (although worrying about your looks sometimes was completely normal too), and to speak up against things you believed were wrong, all because of Hermione Granger. Now imagine what it is like to delve into a world you hold so dear only to discover that this same world doesn’t contain a single person who looks like you, or worships like you, or loves like you.
The impact of representation in media is proven. A 2012 study showed that the self-esteem of girls and black boys diminishes with increased TV consumption, while the self-esteem of white boys goes up. Could it be because the media shows white males in a range of roles, many of which are positive, while white and black girls and black boys aren’t offered the same amount of representation? This study was conducted in a district with a primarily white and black population, but we can infer that the same results would occur among all other marginalized groups.
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.
As the Every Single Word series proves, no matter the many positives of Harry Potter, when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity the movies are no ideal model. And as almost the entire production team of Fantastic Beasts worked on the Harry Potter films, it is disappointing that they didn’t take this opportunity to correct their previous mistakes.
To increase diversity in the Harry Potter films, the filmmakers would have had to race-bend some characters (which I think is a fantastic idea). But Fantastic Beasts is a brand new project with little to no canon informing it, so the fact that this project currently offers less diverse casting, even with this added flexibility, is a problem.
I am still excited about Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. I will continue to countdown to the 2016 release date, and salivate over every tiny detail as they are revealed. But it is also okay to be disappointed in the lack of diversity. And it is okay to discuss flaws, even in a series we all love; in fact we need to do this, especially in a series we all love.
But all is not lost!
There is still hope for a more diverse cast. J.K. Rowling tweeted early this morning (after this article had been written, thanks Jo!) that “everyone” in the Fantastic Beasts cast “is not white.” She reminded us that there are two more films to come in the trilogy and presumably new characters will be introduced in each.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 25, 2015
@Vividscarletsky Perhaps wait until you see the movie to judge? It is a trilogy and all the characters have not been revealed or cast yet.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 25, 2015
We appreciate Jo’s comments and are glad to hear there will be more diversity, but the fact remains that the lead cast is all white. If there was a significant character in the first film who was played by a person of color, they would’ve been cast already because Fantastic Beasts started filming last week. The tweets don’t seem to offer a firm answer on whether or not there will be a person of color in the first movie — Jo is hinting that they won’t come until the second or third film.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to judge a film based on a few snippets of casting information, but the unfortunate trend in the film industry of a lack of diversity means these are discussions we do need to be having. I hope wholeheartedly that Rowling’s tweets mean we can expect a balanced number of characters from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Although until I see a casting announcement, you must forgive me for remaining only cautiously optimistic.