Newt Scamander will probably not be a person of color in the recently announced Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them movies. When some relatively “unknown” white British male of medium height and with floppy, hipster “I don’t care” hair in his mid-twenties to mid-thirties gets cast, the internet will fall all over themselves to find out every detail about this man and begin worshipping him blindly. The fans who supported casting an actor of color will be resigned to the fact that yet again, the opportunity for “progressive” or “risky” casting is dismissed in favor of safe casting choices in a guaranteed box office smash.
Casting someone who looks like me shouldn’t be considered risky. I’ve talked about this a few times before. It’s pretty shameful that we still consider casting a person of color in a lead role (with a few noted exceptions), as novel and progressive. After all, this a nation that will throw racist slurs at a child for singing the national anthem while wearing a Mariachi suit, or condemn Miss America for looking like a “terrorist“.
The only things we know about this film is that it has been greenlit, it is being written, and that it will take place (at least partially) in 1920s New York. We know Newt is male and that he will eventually grandfather Luna Lovegood’s future husband (which, should be noted is not a definite indication of sexuality and doesn’t rule out queering Newt Scamander). Outside of that, it’s a pretty blank slate. Thankfully, fansites and tumblr have been working overtime to start fancasting. Popular Harry Potter fansite Mugglenet put out their casting. As expected, it’s a line of tall, thin, waif-ish, white British men, culminating in the current It boy, Benedict Cumberbatch. Look, all of those actors are fine, talented men and will continue to work in the many mediums they choose to work in. But this isn’t about them and how deserving they are of the opportunity to headline a franchise.
A vocal portion of the fandom sees this movie as an opportunity for a man of color in a lead role. Since Hollywood standbys Denzel Washington and Will Smith are too old and too American, fans are looking at British actors including: Dev Patel (The Newsroom, Slumdog Millionaire), John Boyega (Attack the Block), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Daniel Kaluuya (The Fades, Black Mirror), and Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist). My personal favorite is Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who fits so much of the tumblr fan favorite criteria (tall and lanky, hipster fashion sense including glasses and cardigans, from a TV show, Misfits, with a cult following, etc.)
The fanart is already happening.
This doesn’t mean that everyone is on board with a PoC as Newt. Far from it. The arguments regarding casting are fairly predictable and seem to fall in line with every other time a person of color is remotely considered for anything (see also: why we can’t have a black James Bond or a black Doctor):
- It’s J.K. Rowling’s character. She’s lived with him in her head; she has a plan. Let’s trust good old Jo, she hasn’t steered us wrong and how dare we be critical of her work.
As one of the many people who remembers the agonizing months between books, wrote fanfiction, and engaged fully in the fandom, let’s not pretend that Harry Potter is a completely flawless book series. Let’s not pretend that J.K. Rowling is a perfect person and every word written is amazingly progressive. Her choice to only include some details about characters until after the book (Dumbledore is gay!) and in an interview is problematic. I can barely remember a character of color in the book who was fully realized. Angelina married George because of that one time that she went out with his twin brother Fred and they fall in love over grief of losing him? What’s Dean up to, beyond being one of Ginny’s exes? One Patil twin is gossipy; the other is there to fill in as a date in Book 4? One had their hair in one braid and one had two, but what girl over 13 is wearing pigtails? What’s the magical equivalent of the glitter gel roll-on and butterfly clips? I’m pretty sure the Patil twins wore saris at some point, because of course they did. I’m pretty sure that J.K. Rowling would agree that she doesn’t have the all the answers regarding race, sexuality, and representation and that the Harry Potter series, at times, reflects this.
Almost all of these are fan-created or movie canon, which also dropped and created characters at will. Whatever happened to all those students of color in Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban? Did Bem graduate from Hogwarts that year, because he was in Harry’s Divination class, so what’s that about? There seems to be some inconsistency with their testing system. What about Lavender Brown? She was black in earlier films, but the second she got a plotline, so she was recast as white. Which version of Lavender is canon? (I think everyone knows it’s the white version.)
- It’s not historically accurate.
Here’s an argument that makes me feel that American education is failing. I have seen a significant amount of tumblr posts mocking this line of thinking, as the search for historical accuracy in a book series about magical creatures and wizards is kind of ridiculous. It’s ridiculous for two major reasons: 1) It supposes that all fantasy must be somewhat historically accurate which counters the very idea of fantasy, and 2) It supposes that British people of color existing, or more specifically, existing in 1920s New York is not historically accurate.
A five minute Wikipedia venture (I know) turned up these links to academic writing on immigration in the U.K.:
By the mid-19th century, there were more than 40,000 Indian seamen, diplomats, scholars, soldiers, officials, tourists, businessmen and students in Britain. (Wiki)
I think several of those occupations are similar to the fictional character Newt Scamander’s purported profession.
The first Chinese student to graduate from a British university was Wong Fun who received his MD in 1855 from Edinburgh. (Wiki)
Before World War II, the largest Black communities were to be found in the United Kingdom’s great port cities: London’s East End, Liverpool, Bristol and Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, with other communities in South Shields in Tyne & Wear and Glasgow. The South Shields community (which, as well as Black British, also included South Asians and Yemenis) were victims of the UK’s first race riot in 1919. (Wiki)
While Wikipedia may not be the most academic or credible of sources, it does often draw upon more “legitimate” writing, and also proves that some accessible information about immigration does exist for those who are interested in looking. Basically what those five minutes on Wikipedia taught me is that entire communities of color existed in the 1920s, and that it is entirely plausible that an educated person of color is featured in a film about this time period. This idea that people of color did not exist during certain time periods that continues to influence casting in films and larger understandings of the world is entirely ill-informed. Our primary film gaze is that of an American-centric, English-speaking world. Why do we continue to limit our worldview as borders and languages become increasingly shared? Why do we continue to render some experiences as invisible or non-existent?
The reality is this: fans are just excited for another glimpse into the world of Harry Potter. Will some fans jump ship if they see a actor of color in the lead? Sure. Will new audiences be lured in at the promise of something different or even a face that looks like theirs in a lead role? Bollywood fans have done more with less.
Most fans of this casting are not expecting to get their wish. This conversation isn’t even really about Harry Potter and the minute details of why a person of color would work as a lead in this franchise. Though it should be said that it seems inherently flawed that a book series about racism and fascism (in a fantasy setting) doesn’t feature leads of color. Fans have been continually disappointed by whitewashed casting of characters of color, and frustrated with a general lack of visibility of characters that look more like them. Noting the tumblr arguments for and against this conversation is part of a larger issue of media representation.
What fans are really hoping is that as Hollywood sees that their old formulas for churning out big box office returns is proving more and more unreliable, that they will turn to these more “risky” choices. The success of The Fast and the Furious proves that franchises can succeed with diverse casts. Pacific Rim proves that they can begin with diverse casts. Fans are hoping that by using a franchise that has more than profited, to continue to highlight their general lack of visibility, they can continue to rewrite these Hollywood norms. This is blank slate franchise borne of an established, well-regarded franchise. It seems so simple to just follow the same rules of the previous Harry Potter films and cast unknowns as leads and populate the supporting cast with famous veterans. However, these fans are hoping that unknown actors of color are in the same casting pool as the more traditionally white unknowns.
Fans are asking established writers and established franchises to consider them not as a risk, but as simply part of the movie-making process. Filmmakers of color are creating their own art, writing their own stories and imagining their own new worlds, but are still pigeonholed as a niche market. They simply do not have the amount of visibility and power as major production companies and major franchises do, to tell these stories. To ask that Newt Scamander be a man of color is asking to acknowledge that people of color exist in the same shared spaces as all fans. Even those imaginary spaces.