If you aren’t a Potterhead, then you may or may not be aware of the origin of the Fantastic Beasts movies and their connection to the original Harry Potter books/movies. With the newest movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald, coming to theaters this month, the controversies surrounding author J.K. Rowling and her team have spiraled the Twitter-verse down a rabbit hole of discourse, coming down to the same conclusion; the serious lack of racial minority casting cannot be diverted by the occasional casting of a stereotypical side character.
Harry Potter chronicles an orphaned wizard boy from the age of 11 to 18 and his adventures saving the wizarding world from his antithesis — Voldemort. In the very first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter is seen picking up a required textbook from Flourish and Blotts for his first year and adventure at Hogwarts, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander. This is where the origin story for Fantastic Beasts was born. While the book is just what it is called — a collection of magical beasts that Newt has chronicled — the movies are something else entirely. The first movie of the prequel series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was set in New York during the 1920s and follows Newt Scamander who, while quietly observing the beasts of New York, uncovers the secret identity of one of the most dangerous wizard of all time — Grindelwald. The second movie, therefore, has a lot to live up to.
The Crimes of Grindelwald revolves around Newt getting enlisted by Albus Dumbledore — the same Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series — to thwart Grindelwald’s plans to rule over non-magical people. That sounds interesting enough, but with the addition of each new trailer meant to tease the movie, the backlash that the movie has been facing grows. Recent claims of a lack of racial diversity brought upon by the trailers for the second movie actually aren’t the first accusations made toward a Rowling film. The first battle began when movie director David Yates claimed that Dumbledore would not be explicitly gay in the second movie, then later denied those claims. Then, Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald around the same time he was being accused of domestic violence against his wife. These accusations, as well as the fact that J.K. Rowling herself has dealt with allegations of racism in the original Harry Potter series regarding the obvious lack of racial diversity, all were just an added hit to the most recent and heated controversy. While side characters such as Cho Chang and the Patil sisters did represent racial minorities in the original series, they were thrown in without much character development, importance to the plot (other than being love interests) and a serious lack of screen time. In fact, Every Single Word, a blog and YouTube channel dedicated to highlighting the lack of diversity in cinema maintained by Dylan Marron, calculated that the amount of time racial minorities spoke in all eight Harry Potter movies boiled down to a total of five minutes and 40 seconds out of 1,207 minutes, only 0.47 percent of overall screen time. Therefore, when the newest trailer for the second Fantastic Beasts movie featured South Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini — Voldemort’s future pet slave — Twitter had a field day.
Firstly, the snake Nagini’s main role in the Harry Potter universe was as Voldemort’s beloved pet and Horcrux (a part of Voldemort’s soul) — so beloved that she is milked in order to sustain Voldemort as he awaited a “true rebirth.” Casting a woman of color as a white man’s pet that is exploited to sustain him is concerning for a franchise that already had racist allegations leveled against it. Furthermore, when more and more fans started to voice their concern and confusion, J.K. Rowling tried to explain but ended up creating a flame war by saying, in response to one fan’s concern, “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi.”
This inflammatory statement is the real source of anger and controversy, as it failed to clear up the explanation that “Naga” in fact is a Sanskrit name that comes from the Indian Hindu scripture and that Korean and Chinese cultures are separate and not interchangeable. This “explanation” of Rowling’s clearly lacks the time and sensitivity that a response like this should illicit. Not only did Rowling lack cultural sensitivity in casting, she also didn’t even bother to fact check her argument. In fact, I went ahead and searched “naga” to see where she could’ve gotten her argument, and the very first result said that “naga” is the Sanskrit word for for snake. Moreover, this statement didn’t even touch on the casting issue. Fans were concerned by the fact that the first pivotal representation of a female minority was going to be that of a white man’s pet whose eventual death is decapitation by a another white man.
Beyond even that, Rowling went on to dig her grave by insinuating that casting a South Korean actress was justified because “Indonesia is comprised of multiple ethnic groups like the Javanese, Chinese, and Betawi”…but not South Korean. Rowling has done this before — in the original series, she attempted to get away with the lack of diversity by claiming that Hermione was supposed to be African American in the book, based on her ambiguous descriptions, and that Dumbledore was actually gay, even though neither identities were even mentioned in the books. Both seem to be afterthoughts meant to hide the real issues under the rug, in a very obvious fashion. Rowling, like many other recent movie and book writers, is acting as a cultural tourist — picking and choosing what race and culture to exploit in order to seem more liberal or “with the times” rather than using the responsibility and powers that she has to properly represent those cultures.
While the movie had previously cast Indonesian actress Acha Septriasa as Nagini, she became pregnant and was replaced by Kim. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the casting of an Asian as a Hitler-based character’s pet servant is offensive to many, as it only further stereotypes the Asian woman in a universe that already lacks representation of racial minorities. Common to many controversies surrounding films of the past is this idea of orientalism, coined by academic Edward Said, which is the phenomenon of the West stereotyping Asian characters and the common appropriation of Asian culture. Fans are concerned that Nagini’s human role will be that of another Asian who has little to no lines, exists to bolster other characters, and whose entire purpose is to be exotic and villainous. The teaser gave only a glimpse into the possibilities for the character, but the hope is that the writers make Nagini a dynamic and well developed main character that can lead to more representation in the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts worlds.
Rowling created a universe in our childhoods that makes butterbeer sound delicious and riding on broomsticks a sport, but it also gave a very narrow perspective and turned away from any chance to use the magic created to relate to all fans. While the original series was written in a very different day and age, the Fantastic Beasts franchise is the perfect way to represent cultures accurately and in a manner meant to respect and value all diversity has to offer in order to reach into the entirety of the Potter fan base and beyond. Perhaps the Twitter uproar will permeate through the prequel and create a new magical world for all.