BY BETH PETER
A very exciting announcement was made over winter break – Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger were cast in the upcoming West End stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A thrilling moment for Potter fans worldwide, the play covers the lives of the Golden Trio as they struggle through adulthood, along with examining the tribulations of the Potter children, Albus in particular, as they bear their family legacy. In an unprecedented move, the actress cast to play Hermione Granger, previously played by Emma Watson, is a black woman named Noma Dumezweni. Many people have made arguments for a black interpretation of Hermione, but this is the first time they will be canonically recognized. People have often criticized author J. K. Rowling’s inclusion of minorities in the Harry Potter series. The books are more ambiguous about the races of the ensemble but as video “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in the Entire ‘Harry Potter’ Film Series” created by Dylan Marron shows, the 12 characters of color in the Harry Potter films speak for a total of 5 minutes and 40 seconds (some offscreen) out of the 1,207 minute run-time. The cast of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, scheduled to release later this year, has no speaking characters of color though it’s set in New York City, one of the most diverse places on the planet. Further, does anyone else remember the time Jennifer Smith, a girl of color, played Lavender Brown with no lines? Probably not, because when she was upgraded to Ron’s love interest in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince she was recast to Jessie Cave, a white actress. But surely this isn’t a trend, right? The race of the characters was ambiguous in the books, so they just cast white people because they were best suited for the job? It’s not like if a character was explicitly stated to be a certain race they’d change it, right?
Wrong. This happens all the time.
Take Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, for example. While already a terrifically racist character playing on harmful racial stereotypes about Native Americans, the latest adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s character, in the 2015 movie Pan, Tiger Lily was played by Rooney Mara. She is a white actress.
Jesus and Moses are played by white men in countless films, including Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation Of Christ and Christian Bale in Mary, Mother Of Jesus TV Movie. Elizabeth Taylor, a white actress, played Cleopatra in 1963. For those confused, Jesus and Moses were Middle Eastern men, and were probably more olive toned than white. Cleopatra was Egyptian, a country in Northern Africa whose inhabitants range from olive toned complexions to dark brown skin.
This is not a new phenomenon, and is one with considerable range. The Oscar nominees this year are also conspicuously lacking in actors of color – in fact, it’s the second year in a row when no actors or actresses of color are nominated for an Academy Award. This is a beyond insulting blow to the community.
Actors of color have always been an essential part of film, though were usually given roles of slaves or servants. Today, however, the blockbuster of the holiday season stars an actor of color.
In October 2015, there was talk of a Star Wars boycott as fans were outraged in the casting of John Boyega. His parents immigrated to England from Nigeria, and Boyega was nothing but proud of his heritage in the face of the racism directed his way.
“I’m grounded with who I am, and I am a confident black man,” Boyega said in an interview with the New York Times. “A confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate man. I’m proud of my heritage, and no man can take that away from me. I wasn’t raised to fear people with a difference of opinion.”
The problems with casting primarily white actors are many and varied. Firstly, it furthers a toxic mindset that white is the norm, and that any other race or culture is uncommon and non crucial. Secondly, by refusing to employ actors of color, film studios imply that white actors are inherently better at their trade than actors of color. A common excuse for the whitewashing of a film is usually: “Well, maybe White Actor was just the best for the job.” This is the effect the Academy had when they refused to nominate any actors of color for an Oscar this season, making it the second year in a row such a decision was made.
Hiring white actors in roles with more lines and greater screen time is harmful to the actor of colors pursuit of equality in a profession that refused to give them roles above slaves and servants for one hundred years. In fact, the first time an African American woman ever won an Emmy award for Best Actress in a Drama was 2015 when Viola Davis won for her role in How To Get Away With Murder.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said in an interview. “You can not win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there.”
Representation in media changes so much about the psyche of a developing child and can determine their confidence level through life, as well as the careers they see as possibilities for themselves down the line.
Whoopi Goldberg said upon seeing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek for the first time when she was younger, she went running and screaming through the house,
“Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid,” Goldberg said, in an interview. “I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
That is the important part – casting more actors of color in no way negatively affects white actors. Yet not casting them hurts people of color on so many levels. Equal representation of minorities matters. With media such a prevalent factor in normal development it is becoming increasingly important to be inclusive of all races and genders when casting lead roles. Media is often meant to be relatable and more importantly reinforces or opposes stigmas that plague minority groups. Without the inclusion of minorities, all forms of media are only showing parts of a story.
When actors of color are only shown occasionally, especially if it’s just to perpetuate stereotypes, all people of color are implicated.