In support of a Newt of color: Diversity in the wizarding world
Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com, a fan-driven media advocacy organization that promotes equality and representation.
Who will play Newt Scamander? The most recent rumors suggest that Doctor Who star Matt Smith is Warner Bros’ top picks for the role. Plenty of Harry Potter fan sites—MuggleNet included—have speculated on the young actor who would end up taking the role of the magizoologist living in New York in the 1920s. One common thread? Nearly all of the proposed potential actors have been white.
As moviegoers, we’re so used to seeing the main character be a white male that Newt Scamander’s race is treated as a given. In 2015, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA released its second diversity report, which that found that 74% of lead roles go to men, and 83% of lead roles go to white actors. A USC study on race and ethnicity in popular films in 2013 found that 52.1% of all speaking roles went to white male actors.
But why not a Newt of color? Or at least an opportunity for talented young actors of color to be considered for the role?
Bring up the potential for a lead actor of color, and one of the first arguments to shoot down the idea will inevitably be that “most British people are white.”
That’s certainly true, perhaps even more so during the time period the Newt Scamander story is set. But this defensive reaction is more a reflection of how ingrained the “white male protagonist” default is in fandom imagination than a compelling reason for Newt to have to be white.
The argument that “most British people back then were white,” and therefore, Newt must be white, makes no sense. People of color have lived in Britain for hundreds of years; there is no reason why Newt could not be a Brit from a diverse place like Liverpool, which has been home to centuries-old black and Asian communities.
Would a brown Newt Scamander have grown up and gone to school around a lot of white British people? Almost certainly, being a Hogwarts alumnus—and he would have had a different experience than his peers. But a character like Newt is a single individual and an artistic invention—which means he does not have to be demographically “more probable.”
Protagonists are never statistically average—if anything, they own their stories because they are improbably unique! Harry Potter was the main character of his story because out of all wizards he was the sole survivor of an encounter with Voldemort. That OzCorp spider bit the one kid scientifically savvy enough to design web shooters. Of all the ordinary citizens who live in Gotham City, the movie is about the guy who runs around dressed like a bat. All American pro baseball players in 1947 were white except for one, but all baseball movies set in 1947 are about Jackie Robinson.
Newt Scamander, ostensibly, is the protagonist of this story because he was exceptional. We know that people of color have been in the United Kingdom for centuries, and we know the wizarding community as depicted by J.K. Rowling was diverse. We know that 1920s New York City was flourishing with diversity—this was the era of the Harlem Renaissance. The time for whitewashed “historical plausibility” is probably not when the movie is about a wizard who finds fantastic beasts.
A Relatable Hero
Harry Potter’s experiences with adversity made him a relatable Chosen One to fans of the books and movies. So many components of his identity helped define him—he was an orphan and foster kid, a survivor of abuse and neglect, an average student, and wore glasses for his poor eyesight. Kids who identified with these traits were able to see parts of themselves reflected in their hero’s journey. Kids who didn’t personally identify were able to empathize with characters whose experiences differed from them.
These facets of identity were important. They’re why black-haired Asian and Latino kids with glasses felt represented by Harry Potter. They’re why so many young nerdy black girls related to Hermione’s love of learning, her curly hair, and her passion for equal rights. Diverse media representation is crucial. Researchers are finding that media representation can impact self-esteem. A study from 2012 found that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys and an increase in self-esteem among white boys who are well represented in television. We all construct ideas about the world based on the media we consume, and being represented helps people from minority groups feel seen and accepted. Representation of minority characters also helps people in the majority learn empathy by experiencing adventures from the perspective of someone from a different culture or skin color. (Think about how many American fans learned to appreciate British boarding school culture through Harry Potter!)
While there are many supporting characters of color in the wizarding world, fans of color have waited a long time to be fully represented in the Harry Potter movies.
In 2005, when Katie Leung was cast was Cho Chang, she was subject to withering criticism from fans insistent that Cho Chang was white. Although the original 2005 anti-Cho Chang/Katie Leung Facebook groups are no longer online, the racist vitriol from fandom generated enough attention to be covered by media outlets. Asian fans had to weather seeing these comments. Likewise, when Blaise Zabini was revealed to be black in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there was a noticeable hostile reaction to his race among fan fiction writers. These fandom experiences are hurtful and invalidating since characters of color are already underrepresented in the franchise.
Then there’s the case of Lavender Brown’s depiction in the movies. Originally depicted by black actresses, she was recast with a white actress when the character became a speaking role. This had the unfortunate impact of communicating to fans that background characters can be people of color until they interact with the white heroes. When fans voiced their concerns, other fans would quote a vague line about her skin color from the books, as if that negated years of visual depictions of the character as a woman of color.
Like many other characters in the films, Dean Thomas’s role was drastically reduced. Still, the production made sure to develop Seamus Finnigan’s character even further than he was developed in the books—in the movies he has a running gag where he creates explosions. Although Dean has more scenes and more plot in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Seamus, Seamus gets more lines and scenes in the movies. Additional invented Seamus scenes are in the deleted footage, compared to Dean’s story, which was never shot.
Throughout this time, we’ve weathered racist debates and experienced some stressful erasures. The casting of an actor of color as Newt Scamander will almost certainly draw racist comments from our fellow fans, but there are so many more fans who would accept or grow to accept a lead character of color.
While many characters of color made appearances in the Harry Potter movies, their depiction was not a priority. The setting of Fantastic Beasts—1920s New York City—and the existing popularity of the Harry Potter movies puts J.K. Rowling in an amazing position to change that.
As fans, we can open our imaginations to possibilities and support representation so that more people can be seen and share in the stories we love. The only major barriers to Newt Scamander being portrayed by an actor of color are artistic intent and Hollywood’s systemic racial bias.
As far as artistic intent is concerned, if Rowling intends for the protagonist of her next movie blockbuster franchise to be another white man, then that is certainly her prerogative. All the fans who want diversity can do is respectfully advocate for something different.
As for the studio, Harry Potter is a worldwide, recognizable brand. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to make a lot of money at the Box Office. The usual Hollywood justifications for having to cast a white guy to draw an audience don’t have to apply. (The Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that more diverse casts lead to higher box office returns, so a non-white Newt Scamander may even draw interest—especially since the majority of moviegoers are not white men.)
While there will probably be friends, sidekicks, and love interests who are not white men in the story, it would be significant if the central character in these films were a character of color. Fantastic Beasts could be the biggest blockbuster franchise to ever feature an actor of color in the lead role.
Actors of color deserve a fair shot to play Newt Scamander. Nothing about the character is necessarily race-specific. J.K. Rowling even recently described Scamander’s descendent, Rolf Scamander, as his “swarthy grandson.”
While there is likely nothing fans can do to persuade Warner Bros to consider actors of color alongside the white actors they are already considering, J.K. Rowling is in a unique position to advocate. With her voice and influence, she can ensure that actors of color are given a fair shot to the role. I hope she does. It would only make the wizarding world a more interesting and magical place.