Those who thought Harry Potter would end after “The Deathly Hallows” have been thrilled by recent announcements from the Potterverse.
These developments include not only a Harry Potter theme park and the movie version of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but also a continuation of Harry Potter’s story following the boy-wizard as an all-grown-up and stressed out Ministry of Magic employee and his middle child, Albus Severus Potter, in a stage play called “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
The latest news about the “Cursed Child” made waves over the weekend when it was announced that Hermione will be played by a black woman.
Unfortunately, some people are less than pleased about this.
Actress Noma Dumezweni is a London stage veteran who won a Laurence Olivier Award for best performance in a supporting role for 2005’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and she will play Hermione opposite Jamie Parker as Harry and Paul Thornley as Ron.
The funny (sad-funny, not haha-funny) thing is though, film adaptations of stories that originally starred actors of color are routinely white-washed. Just look at “21,” which was about Asian-American MIT students gaming Las Vegas casinos but was adapted to star a white actor in the main role. Or “The Last Samurai,” in which Tom Cruise played a samurai.
This practice goes back to Hollywood’s golden age and continues even today, with Johnny Depp playing a Native American in a “Lone Ranger” adaptation and Emma Stone being cast as a part-Asian character in “Aloha.”
When characters who are meant to be black or brown are played by white actors, the defense is usually that Hollywood is a meritocracy and casting directors simply pick the best actor for the role regardless of skin color. But when an actor of color is cast in a role that many assume to be white, people are suddenly concerned about authenticity.
Even when a character in a book who is described as a person of color is played by a person of color, people are upset because they assumed the character was white (see the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in “The Hunger Games”).
Boom. Mic drop. Hermione’s race was never stated in the books.
The Potter movies chose to portray Hermione as a white woman. Hermione appears on the cover of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” with white skin as well.
And that’s fine! That’s a choice the casting director for the films made. That’s a choice the book artist made. Those are choices made not based on descriptions of Hermione in the text but on assumptions made in a world that assumes that, unless otherwise specified, people and characters are white.
The casting director for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” has chosen to portray Hermione as a black woman.
And both portrayals are acceptable, and J.K. Rowling approved interpretations of the character.
One of the critiques that the Potter series has faced since its release is that Rowling didn’t seem to write a lot of main roles for people of color in the Harry Potter series. The only explicit diversity in the movies were in background roles, such as the Indian Patil sisters, Potter classmate Dean Thomas, Quidditch captain Angelina Johnson, and love interest Cho Chang (aka The One Before Ginny).
What we can learn from this conversation is how we all need to be more open-minded about diversity in pop culture. Perhaps this is something J.K. Rowling has realized after the fact. Perhaps this is something she wished she had made explicitly clear in the books, or perhaps she enjoys people interpreting her work in new and different ways.
It’s great that such a beloved piece of pop culture is moving into the 21st century.