Less fantastic beasts

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I didn’t recognize Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’d been aware that he’d been cast in the franchise, and was troubled by it, but in the great, swirling sea of shit that’s been 2016 news, I hadn’t read up on who he’d been cast as. I’d thought that, whatever the case, I wouldn’t have to worry about him making money off my ticket until the next movie. I enjoyed about twenty minutes of relative peace before my friend brought him up, jolting me into nauseating awareness.

One of the things Harry Potter fans pride themselves on most is the abundance of worthy messages that can be taken away from the series. True, J.K. Rowling made her fortune off a tale of tolerance and friendship that is overwhelmingly white and heterosexual, but the fandom has become expert at reinterpreting the Canon more inclusively; an abundance of fanart featuring a black Hermione existed long before casting for The Cursed Child was announced. And, as many Potter fans will be quick to cite, growing up a Harry Potter fan has been shown to make children more tolerant.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them already had problems before the casting of Depp. The movie, set in New York City in 1926, features a black female president for American witches and wizards, but she’s just about the only person of colour with any lines who you’ll see in more than one scene.[1] True, in 1920, the city was 97.1% white, and by 1930 that number had only dropped to 95.1%, but the population of black New York residents increased by 60.2% in that time, from 91,709 to 152,467. 1926 was, after all, right in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. Even disregarding historical context, seeing as J.K. Rowling is already departing from historical accuracy by filling New York with a secret society of witches and wizards, it is not beyond imagining that perhaps for a film made in 2016, she might have prioritized a lead of colour. After all, there’s no compelling reason why Newt Scamander had to be white.

The film ran into even murkier territory with the release of information on Ilvermorny, the American Wizarding school, which made liberal, inaccurate, and insulting use of various Native American myths to appropriate them for whiteness and white profit, and downplaying colonization and genocide in the process. (Beyond a brief mention by an American witch, Ilvermorny is mercifully not invoked in the movie.)

And then there is the matter of Depp.

I can see why they absolutely had to cast Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald. After all, what other pale-eyed, blond, German actors could they possibly have hunted down? Granted, Grindelwald is already a troubling character in many aspects. As some people like to point out when questioned on Harry Potter’s social justice cred, Dumbledore was gay,[2] and who is his only implied love interest in the entire series?[3] That’s right: Gellert Grindelwald.

… except, you know, Grindelwald is a pretty explicit Hitler allegory. He’s invoked as a precursor to Voldemort (who was all about genocide, “social cleansing,” and eugenics), and was defeated by Dumbledore himself in 1945.

Obviously, there’s nothing like a good queer love story where two people fall in love, one of them turns out to be a genocidal maniac, and the other is forced to publicly battle their one true love so they can be imprisoned for life, while The Good Queer gets to spend the rest of their life ostensibly celibate with a weird and troubling habit of recruiting child soldiers, but hey, I digress.

And listen, I love Harry Potter. When I was TAing during my Master’s, I sorted my students into Hogwarts houses and kept track of points throughout the semester as an incentive to participate in class. I’ve gotten into arguments with other English majors about the literary merits of the series. I’ve been in love with this world since I was 11 years old, when I spent months convincing myself that, since my birthday is September 2nd, my Hogwarts letter might still be coming. But loving something doesn’t mean giving it a free pass when it fucks up, anymore than loving someone means giving them a free pass when they fuck you up. And there’s no reason why Depp should have been cast in this franchise.

Depp does not look like Grindelwald, who is described as pale, with white-blond hair, one pale eye, and one dark one. In the original films, he was depicted in flashbacks by Jamie Campbell Bower, who bears no particular resemblance to Depp. While some may argue that Depp will be a draw for the films as a recognizable name that’s easy to market, just like they argued Newt Scamander was better off as Academy Awardwinning Redmayne, the fact remains that these are, however distantly, Harry Potter films. They are not making money off the profiles of their cast; they could have cast complete unknowns, and the film would still make a lot of money, because it’s a Harry Potter film.[4] After seeing the film, my friend and I wandered through a bookstore, where we saw at least seven Harry Potter colouring books; at least six Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them books; Harry Potter CLUE; Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit; countless Harry Potter POP! toys; and brand new editions of the seven main books, including a fully illustrated Chamber of Secrets.

The Harry Potter franchise is doing fine. It did not need Depp as a draw. Even if it did need a big name star to bring audiences in, was the world’s most overpaid actor for two years running really the best choice?

And if Depp is a draw, what does it say that a man can be outed as an abuser in the summer and cast in one of the world’s most successful franchises by the fall? The headlines about Depp the week after the film’s release focused not on his abuse of ex-wife Amber Heard, but on how Heard herself may have “sabotaged” a film and is now facing a $10 million lawsuit. Oh, also: he may or may not be sleeping with Angelina Jolie.[5]

Some articles have covered the backlash against Depp by Potter fans, and executive producer David Heyman claimed he was cast because of his ~~~iconic status, that they needed “somebody who could, on the one hand, seduce, but, on the other hand, be really scary.” On the one hand, that’s a pretty succinct description of domestic abuse, but on the other hand, the fact that Fantastic Beasts’ producers would see that as a plus is pretty scary.

Director David Yates, meanwhile, noted Depp’s talent and stated that “talent never goes away” and “Hollywood is such a fickle place.” But for Depp, as for Sean Penn, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and so many other men — especially white men — Hollywood is not fickle at all. Hollywood is unscrupulous when it comes to male abusers to the point of absurdity. Even Rowling herself, who was the victim of domestic abuse before she was famous, said she was “delighted” by the casting.[6]

Okay, Jo.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them started with the best intentions. It was originally a short book produced for Comic Relief, an anti-poverty charity that has raised over £1bn in its 30-year history. The Potter series has, for all of its many faults, been for myself and many other fans a symbol of tolerance, a way of seeing the world with hope and grace and the courage to speak up when you’re confronted with cruelty. Harry Potter gave me a refuge when I was being bullied as an adolescent and spent ten years barely feeling human. It gave me a circle of equally geeky friends who I still talk to regularly today. I know several Potter fans whose sexual awakenings as queer people were directly tied to the people they met in the Potter fandom. Harry Potter has, by and large, been a force of good in my world.

So I hope we, as a community of fans who are allegedly more tolerant than most, continue to speak up about this. I hope, if the studio insists on keeping Depp in the role, that fans respond by letting the films take a hit at the box office. I enjoyed the film, and if circumstances were different, I would be planning to see it again soon; as it stands, I can’t in good conscience give any more money to the franchise while they continue to give money to Depp.

I hope my friends and other Potter fans will join me in boycotting the films so long as they continue to revitalize the floundering career of an abuser. Will it suck to have to wait until you can pirate a decent version of the next four films? Totally, but getting beat up by someone you trusted is a lot worse, so maybe let’s try and keep things in perspective. Not all the beasts in this franchise are fantastic.


[1] Not hugely surprising, as a survey of the speaking time given to characters of colour in the original films showed that only 0.47% of the movies gave those characters room to speak.

[2] Inclusion that’s never explicitly made in the books but thrown in informally after the fact is not my favourite type of queer representation, but sure, yeah, Dumbledore was gay, cool.

[3] Old people don’t have sex, obviously. Especially not old gay people.

[4] Don’t believe me? Ask how the Star Wars franchise is feeling about their casting.

[5] Re-checking this today, there are several stories noting that Depp is being a dick about finalizing the divorce; one noting his compound in the South of France has been listed at $63 million (thank God those Harry Potter people gave him a break, geez); and excitement for him in Labyrinth.

[6] Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. She did, after all, repeatedly depict Severus Snape as a character who deserves our sympathy, and not someone who joined a genocidal cult because a member of an oppressed group didn’t want to date him, and who then forged a career out of torturing his students. Jo, don’t be so eager to forgive; that’s not a lesson little girls need to learn.

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