Hermione Granger is black and white and read all over (Commentary)

The casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in J.K. Rowling’s new “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” stage play – set a couple decades after the books/movies – has opened up a minefield (or treasure trove, depending on your point of view) of discussion about continuity, color-blind casting, double standards and, inevitably, racism. I personally think it’s a poor casting choice, because in my mind Hermione is white. Other continuity-obsessed fans agree with me. But other, more flexible fans have said it doesn’t bother them. And still others see it as a brilliant casting choice because it’s so outside the box.

But the topic isn’t as cut-and-dried as that, because there are so many reasons a fan could arrive at one opinion or another – and in the final analysis, no opinion is “right” or “wrong.” Still, with all the misinformation and accusations being thrown about, I think it’s important to break down this issue in a more detailed fashion in order to understand all the angles.

1. HERMIONE HAD PREVIOUSLY BEEN PORTRAYED AS WHITE.

Some defenders of Dumezweni’s casting have said Hermione was never NECESSARILY white. This argument was given a boost when Rowling herself Tweeted that she never specifically said Hermione is white. It’s impossible to entirely get into the head of another human being, but if Rowling really was unsure about Hermione’s race, she had an odd way of showing it in her prose.

This discussion thread at the Science Fiction & Fantasy website outlines many of the key points:

  • Rowling has always retained and exercised significant control over the “Potter” franchise, and she allowed Hermione to be portrayed as white in all licensed art of the character (notably the book covers), and she allowed the casting of white actress Emma Watson in the movies.
  • Rowling herself sketched Hermione as white.
  • In terms of etymology and history, “Hermione Granger” tends to be a white English name; a case could be made for Greek, but not so much African – barring adoption, but Hermione is not adopted.
  • Hermione has bushy brown hair, which tends to be a Caucasian trait (black folks tend to have black hair).
  • Her face is at one point described as turning white – as in pale. This would be an odd descriptor for a black character.

The “Hermione is black” camp clings to a passage where she is said to have “very brown” skin, but this is clearly in the context of being tanned from the sun, as in the same scene Ron is “very freckled” (a trait of red-haired folks when they are in the sun).

For Hermione to be white and then suddenly be black is a narrative about-face on par with Willow being straight and then suddenly gay on “Buffy.” Both Rowling and Joss Whedon are pushing historical revisionism, which is odd, because the evidence is overwhelming that they simply changed their minds. Hermione changing races is less jarring than Willow changing sexual orientations, though, because we’re talking about a shift from movies to theater, plus a shift in age of two decades, plus a shift in actors: Barring Watson being interested in reprising her role with aging makeup, the character HAD to be recast.

2. HOWEVER, THAT DOESN’T MEAN SHE ALWAYS HAS TO BE PORTRAYED AS WHITE.

Hermione’s change of race could be explained in-universe. In the book version of “Goblet of Fire,” a Hogwarts nurse – at Hermione’s request – uses magic to straighten Hermione’s teeth. While the books didn’t chronicle a character permanently changing their appearance in a more drastic way, such as changing their skin color, this sort of skill is probably in the toolbox of some wizard somewhere in the world of “Harry Potter.” Maybe Hermione herself could do it.

Rowling doesn’t have to go there, though (and I’m certain she doesn’t intend to). She could simply say that her characters’ skin colors are up to the interpretation of any given casting director — indeed, I think she IS tacitly saying this about the play when she says Hermione isn’t necessarily white. The idea of color-blind casting has a lot of precedent in this medium.

There are plenty of historical and fictional figures who have been portrayed inconsistently. Indeed, this is the very point of theater: Not to experience the story of the play (which you probably already know), but to experience the interpretation of the material through the performances. For example, if you go to see “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the race of Jesus is not one of his crucial characteristics – he was most likely olive-skinned (being ethnically Middle Eastern), but he is usually portrayed as white, and no one scoffs.

Openness to color-blind casting applies to some modern fictional – and non-theatrical — characters, too. Because James Bond gets rebooted on a regular basis, most people are open to the idea of a black actor in the role when it comes time to cast the next Bond (Idris Elba’s name has been thrown around a lot).

So if we look at the “Harry Potter” franchise as something that’s open to artistic interpretation, then casting a black Hermione is no problem. And indeed, there’s nothing that says she can’t be white in a future production of “Cursed Child.”

3. BUT “HARRY POTTER” ALWAYS HAD ONE CONSISTENT VISION, AND NOW WE MIGHT BE LOSING THAT.

For people like me who love narrative continuity in big franchises, recent years have been tough. Michael Bay’s new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Disney’s new “Star Wars” have overshadowed the previous interpretations of those franchises, which I preferred. “TMNT” was Eastman and Laird’s vision and “Star Wars” was George Lucas’ vision. Now they are corporate franchises.

“Harry Potter” has remained Rowling’s vision, making it a last bastion of narrative continuity among mega-franchises. She wrote the seven central novels and all of the spinoff books. She consulted on the eight films based on Harry’s school years – approving all narrative adjustments — and wrote the script for the prequel, next fall’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” She also wrote “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”; there would likely not be as much excitement about the play if it was someone else’s vision for the future of these beloved characters.

Rowling’s inconsistency on the question of a main character’s race is a blow to the principles of narrative consistency and an auteur’s coherent vision. When Rowling said a few years ago that Dumbledore was gay, we accepted that not because there is any evidence (one way or another) in the books, but because it came from Rowling herself. If Rowling is saying Hermione is black, yet also wrote passages in her novels implying Hermione is white, then the foundation of this auteur’s vision shows inconsistency.

But is this any more of a blow than the previous example of a “Potter” character changing race?

4. ACTUALLY, “HARRY POTTER” DIDN’T HAVE A CONSISTENT VISION: LAVENDER BROWN CHANGED RACES LONG BEFORE HERMIONE DID.

In the movies, Gryffindor student Lavender Brown is played by black actresses Kathleen Cauley and Jennifer Smith in “Chamber of Secrets” and “Prisoner of Azkaban,” respectively. Then Lavender is portrayed by white actress Jessie Cave in “Half-Blood Prince” and “Deathly Hallows.”

There is no in-universe explanation for Lavender’s race-switching. It’s simply a case where different casting directors had different ideas. It doesn’t take me out of the flow of the movies, although some fans who pore over the films’ minutiae are irked by the inconsistency.

The reason Lavender’s recasting didn’t cause any controversy is that she was a background character without any lines in those first two appearances – we only knew she who she was by reading the credits. Hermione, by contrast, is the saga’s female lead.

Had Lavender been a major character – or had she been clearly described as black in the books (clues to Lavender’s race are even sparser than Hermione’s) – would there have been more controversy? Almost certainly.

5. STILL, THERE SEEMS TO BE A DOUBLE STANDARD WHEN IT COMES TO COLOR-BLIND CASTING.

When characters who “should be” non-white are played by white actors, backlash is the norm. Prime examples are Anthony Hopkins playing a mixed-race character in “The Human Stain” and Emma Stone playing an Asian in “Aloha.” Amid the storm of criticism, Stone even went so far as to apologize for taking the role.

On the flip side, the casting of Dumezweni has been overwhelmingly lauded by the media (“Hermione Granger is black and the internet just lost its mind with joy,” claimed the Irish Mirror). The argument that Hermione should be white doesn’t go unacknowledged, but it tends to be minimized right off the bat, whether it’s the Huffington Post playing to fears of racism charges (” ‘Black Hermione’ backlash proves outrage is about race, not canon”) or The Guardian contending it’s too stupid of an argument to be entertained (“Can Hermione be black? What a stupid question”). In this type of media coverage, the not-so-nuanced term “haters” is often used to denigrate people who question the casting decision.

I can’t get into other people’s heads, but I do suspect fear of being labeled a racist plays into some folks’ unwillingness to analyze this topic. If the principle of color-blind casting truly is color-blind, there shouldn’t be a vast gulf of difference between the reaction to Stone’s casting in “Aloha” and Dumezweni’s in “Harry Potter.” It’s a double standard: A white actor taking a traditionally non-white role is bad, and a non-white actor taking a traditionally white role is good.

What’s more, “Cursed Child” was itself inconsistent in adhering to the principle of color-blind casting. The actors for Harry (Jamie Parker) and Ron (Paul Thornley) are in the ballpark for what Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint might look like in a couple decades — not exact, of course, but if you look at the three leads, it’s abundantly clear which one is furthest away from a visual match to the film actors (who themselves were decent visual matches to the book cover depictions).

And I have to chuckle at the idea of Rowling as a paragon of virtue on diverse casting. She had a chance two decades ago to make Hermione black, and she didn’t take it. All three of her leads, and most of the supporting cast, were white. Then she OK’d Lavender’s switch from black to white. I don’t think any of this makes her a bad person. Most likely, she was writing what she knew, and she mostly knew white folks. Just because her books are successful doesn’t mean she must meet culturally imposed diversity standards.

It’s interesting to note that some black “Potter” fans have said a black Hermione allows them to relate to the character better. This sounds to me like they are bit too hung up on Hermione’s race, and not the content of her character, but to each their own. At any rate, I think it diminishes black people to say traditionally white characters must become black characters in order for the races to be fairly represented. A much better approach would be to embrace existing black role models (fictional or historical), or – if you don’t feel enough of them exist – write your own book saga.

6. BUT IN THE END, HERMIONE’S RACE ISN’T THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT HER CHARACTER.

In Rowling’s books and the movies – and no doubt in “Cursed Child” — Hermione is clever, smart, loyal, driven, concerned about the plight of the less fortunate, and talented at magic. While I think Rowling is bending the truth when she claims she didn’t picture Hermione as white, she is right to suggest that Hermione’s race is not her defining characteristic.

It’s for legitimate reasons that I find the “Cursed Child” casting choice to be jarring. But if I were to attend the play (which is not likely, as it is debuting in England), I wouldn’t see Dumezweni as NOT being Hermione. The simple fact that she’s a great actress who can make me believe what I’m seeing on stage would win me over. By the same token, Watson will always be the definitive Hermione to me, because she inaugurated the role and played it well.

The end result of this mishmash of laudable creative goals, fear-based political correctness, genuine envelope-pushing and sloppy historical revisionism is that Hermione is both black and white. That’s a bit weird, but if the “Harry Potter” stories are read all over, I guess that’s the most important thing, whether you’re picturing the Hermione from the cover art, Emma Watson or a young Noma Dumezweni.

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