Fantastic Beasts and the diversity problem

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey on why the film’s tokenism won’t satisfy a 2018 audience

17 November 2018 09:13

Fantastic beasts aren’t really that difficult to track down at the moment. Absurd politicians hellbent on destruction are in plain view, just as cunning as J.K. Rowling’s magpie-eyed nifflers (cheeky CGI platypuses that will sneak coins from your wallet), but, unfortunately, less cute. Rowling knows this, of course. We no longer need guidance on how to find such creatures, as the title of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates) insinuates, but rather a cautionary tale on what might happen should the most dangerous among them be given a chance to thrive. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates, 2018) is about the monstrous potential of widespread prejudice – its magical critters are, by comparison, harmless.

The core conflict that preoccupies the Wizarding World of the Harry Potter universe is a race war. Based on Rowling’s hugely popular books, the original series, from Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) to Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (David Yates, 2011), introduces us to Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), a figure who echoes the likes of Hitler in his violent determination to exterminate all ‘muggles’. Wizards, he believes, are the superior race and, as such, should be entitled to rule the world as they please – why should normal people be allowed exercise to free will when they can’t even ride a broomstick?

Set in the 1920s, for the Fantastic Beasts series, J.K. Rowling rustles up his racist predecessor, Grindelwald (controversially played by Johnny Depp), an eerily strategic extremist leader, with a dodgy blonde haircut. He cultivates his following through emotional manipulation, promising wizards a better life if they follow his doctrine, while discrediting the systems that already govern their world. At one of his meetings – or perhaps I should say rallies – he makes an example of the Ministry of Magic’s Aurors (the good guys) in front of uncertain followers to cement his power. He’s a textbook bully, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Rowling didn’t have to delve too deep into the GCSE History curriculum to find her inspiration.

But while Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliff) valiantly takes on Voldemort as a teen in the original stories, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) somehow scores a temporary victory against Grindelwald by bumbling about with stick insects in Fantastic Beasts, all in the name of tolerance, what’s curious about Rowling’s woke narratives is that they’re devoid of any meaningful diversity. They talk the talk, but walking? That nonsense is for muggles.

Released intermittently throughout my childhood, the Harry Potter novels were not written for the Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) generation. There were only a handful of characters of colour, all of whom were inconsequential to the main plot and primarily served to pad out Hogwarts’s registers. This made my primary school’s Harry Potter themed fancy dress competitions very difficult; I was never going to win dressed as the token black student, Dean Thomas – plus, he’s a boy.

The newer Fantastic Beast films promised us something different, however. With the addition of Zoe Kravitz and Cornell John to the cast – in the roles of Leta LeStrange and Arnold Guzman respectively – as well as Claudia Kim as Nagina, and the promise of a homosexual relationship between Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald, our latest insight into the Wizarding World was supposed to be more inclusive. With these new additions to the cast heavily emphasised throughout the film’s marketing campaign, The Crimes of Grindelwald was meant to showcase important wizards of different ethnicities and sexual orientations. The trouble is, in practice, it reeks of blatant tokenism and, consequently, a cheap shot at race and queer baiting. Dumbledore is gay, but his relationship with Grindelwald could easily be mistaken for a close friendship without prior knowledge of Rowling’s intentions; two black characters are added, but we’re unlikely to see them return in the next instalment; and Nigiri has perhaps the least lines out of any other main character in the film. It all translates as a careless after thought in a messy plot that twists and turns unnecessarily to accommodate its new, fleeting characters – it’s disappointing, to say the least.

As an avid Potter fan – whose judgement is perhaps admittedly clouded by childhood nostalgia – it pains me to say that this is Rowling’s first misstep with the franchise. The CGI is slicker, the world-building increasingly impressive, but tokenism of this nature won’t fly anymore, no matter how convincing the special effects are. In a tale that so overtly stands against discrimination and intolerance, it seems crazy to me that the films consistently fail to get diversity right. Until Rowling figures this out, I’m afraid her Wizarding World has lost its magic.