Racial Diversity in the Media

When JK Rowling initially wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first of what
would become a seven novel series, she never intended on racializing the series’ lead female:
Hermione Granger. Many of her other leads were perfectly described — Harry Potter is
described as pale with round glasses and a lightning shaped scar, Ron Weasley is freckled with bright red locks, and many more of these characters are nearly perfectly described, skin tone and all. Rowling’s description of Hermione is, brown eyes, frizzy hair, and very clever; she never described her skin tone. During casting of the original Harry Potter movie series, Emma
Watson, a white woman, was cast as Hermione Granger. Due to this, the picture of a white
Hermione was drilled into many peoples’ heads — but many readers of the story still left their
interpretation of Hermione up in the air.

Noma Dumezwani, a black actress born in Africa who immigrated to England with her mother and sister when she was eight, was cast as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This was coined as the “eighth story,” and instead of a novel, was rather a script for a play Dumezwani was cast in. This Hermione, though, is not a young woman attending a magical school, rather an older woman who is the minister of the magical world in England. Many people were outraged — a black Hermione was not portrayed in the movies, nor overtly in the books, so why was Dumezwani playing her? All the backlash was somewhat put to sleep at the acceptance of the casting from JK Rowling. This sort of thing happens way too often in film and literature — just to name a more recent one with the Hunger Games. When Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue from the Hunger Games, some fans were upset by this; even though it had been specified in the novel that she had dark skin.

“Whitewashing” also has stormed the media since essentially the dawn of modern entertainment. Whitewashing is a casting practice with which a white actor is portraying a non-white role. A recent example of this was in Pan, in 2015, when Rooney Mara, a white actress, was cast as Tiger Lily, a Native American character. 1983’s Scarface, starring Al Pacino, was filled with characters of Cuban-descent, when in all reality, most of the Cuban-American characters in the movie were played by non-Cuban actors. Even in films based on real events, like 2006’s World Trade Center, real life United States Marine Jason Thomas who helped rescue people after the collapse of the Twin Towers, was cast as white male Oliver Stone. Thomas is a black male, and many were outraged at Stone’s casting. When the directors explained this decision, they said that they did not know that Thomas was black until after they began filming.

Even the Harry Potter series, which is a story about love and acceptance, included whitewashing in a few ways throughout the films. A character named Lavender Brown, who was a girl who hung out with Harry’s gang was initially cast in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the 2004 film, as a black girl. Lavender’s character was not very prominent, but in the sixth book, when she begins dating Ron Weasley, she has a much larger role. Upon this, the casting director called for a new Lavender, who, of course, was white.

In total, out of the 19 hours and 40 minutes of film the Harry Potter films have, only 5
minutes and 40 seconds of that time is reserved for people of color to speak. That is exactly what is upsetting about this information: JK Rowling has always been open about her want for
diversity, but frankly her movie series does not reflect this. Even her lead characters of color
have little to no appearance in the films: Dean Thomas, a boy in Harry’s year (whose only form
of description is his dark skin) is barely in the series. In the books he has a lead role, and is one
of the main contributors to Harry’s safety in the final book from the people trying to kill him.

Cho Chang, throughout the book series, plays one of Harry’s love interests; and in the
movies, her role is basically completely chopped, and her lack of personality makes her seem like a doll for Harry to kiss. Kingsley Shacklebolt, a member of the Order of the Phoenix, which is an organization created to basically keep Harry safe, is belittled to the point of “sassy” remarks in the films. One of his few lines in the eight films is “… you can’t deny, Dumbledore’s got style.”

This is a very competent and put together man in the book series who works for the government, but is brought down to short lines like these to summarize his character in the films.

What’s irritating about this is the legitimacy behind it: at the end of the day, these
characters were portrayed as a specific race in their source text, and when their race is changed in different forms of media, it somewhat dehumanizes them. What is the issue with wanting to characterize these people as who they are when there are just as much talented and ready people of color ready to portray these characters? If Harry Potter was a story about a huge group of white people, the film’s casting would make sense, but at the end of the day it isn’t.

Showing a lack of racial diversity puts this story in an another world with which there are no people of color is idealistic in a world filled with systemic racism. Studies have shown that most casting directors who work on big blockbusters are white. Many frankly aren’t ready to get rid of the old ways with which Hollywood used to go about, and are still timid to cast actors of color.

Changing a character’s race isn’t simply changing the color of their skin; you are stripping the character of all culture and meaning behind their role. Times are changing, though, and as more and more diverse casts are announced, people will realize that open ended casting is not just a dying fad, but an ever-growing evolution.
— Julian Suarez, House of Mazari