A black actress has been cast as Hermione in the upcoming “eighth” Harry Potter story, the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, prompting a firestorm on social media. Actor Jamie Parker has been cast as Harry Potter, Paul Thornley will play Ron Weasley, and Noma Dumezweni, an Olivier-award-winning actress born in Swaziland will play Hermione.
— Pottermore (@pottermore) December 21, 2015
The play is an entirely new Harry Potter story penned by Rowling, following Harry’s troubles as an overworked government employee and father of three, including his son Albus Severus Potter — who is struggling under the weight of his family legacy (and, probably, his ridiculously grandiose name).
Although the real bombshell here ought to be that Paul Thornley, the actor playing notorious ginger Ron Weasley, doesn’t have red hair, it’s the casting of a woman of color as Hermione that has fans all a-twitter. In the books, Hermione’s main descriptors are her bushy hair and large teeth (pre Goblet of Fire, that is), but in the movies she’s played by Emma Watson — a white actress. Citing “continuity” — and their own images of “canon” Hermione as white — fans peppered J.K. Rowling with questions about the casting choice.
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘 https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
She has since retweeted some fan art featuring a Hermione of color, and a tweet from Matthew Lewis, who played a brunette Neville Longbottom — pointing out that Neville was described in the books as blonde.
Some of my favourite Hermione fanarts next to our new Hermione! pic.twitter.com/80bIkcLBMJ
— alice (@alwaysdragxns) December 20, 2015
And Neville Longbottom was blonde. I really don't care. Good luck to her. https://t.co/0JNjK3Pe0V
— Matthew Lewis (@Mattdavelewis) December 21, 2015
It’s not the first time Rowling has engaged in such debates on Twitter: In February, she favorited a Buzzfeed article by Harry Potter Alliance press coordinator Alanna Bennett, unpacking what the racebending of Hermione as biracial — as done by fanart, redditors, and the internet at large — represents.
If White dudes can be Egyptians/Asians/Arabs/Latinos/Native Americans, then a Black woman can be #Hermione. It's all good.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) December 21, 2015
It’s the very fact that Hermione’s race is so little discussed in the books that made this kind of speculation possible — bushy hair, which in the movies became Emma Watson’s sleek curls, could easily be kinky-curly, and the one time her skin is mentioned in Prisoner of Azkaban it’s described as “brown” after a summer holiday, which could mean anything. But it’s also the fact that her skin color isn’t mentioned that makes fans read it as white.
White is taken as the neutral race — which means if it’s not specified, the person is white. For decades, the ‘flesh’ crayon was a peachy, pale color. The same went for ‘neutral’ pantyhose — they were only neutral for pale women. So when a book character isn’t described, we (or the filmmakers tasked with adapting the literary to the visual) often put a white face on them because that’s the culturally-created norm — and that’s a huge problem.
The same skewed normal dominates our fantasy worlds. We have imaginary universes populated with Jedi Knights, Hobbits, Elves, Starks and Lannisters, Witches and Wizards — but the vast majority of their inhabitants are white and Anglo-Saxon. High fantasy is highly homogeneous. It’s fantasy — people can be whatever we imagine — but somehow, they tend to end up Emma-Watson-white.
Even Rowling is complicit: In the Harry Potter books, generally, if a character is a person of color, that is made explicitly clear, as with Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Cho Chang — all are at some point described by their ethnicity. Ron and Harry? Not so much.
Sometimes, characters end up white even if they’re described otherwise. The upcoming blockbuster Gods of Egypt would, presumably, star actual Egyptians, but instead its cast is almost entirely white. Lavender Brown was black in the first Harry Potter films, then recast as as a white actress when she had a speaking role. It barely made a ripple in terms of mainstream internet outrage. And, if people were truly concerned about canon and continuity, surely they would be equally outraged by the fact that the actor playing Ron in Cursed Child doesn’t have red hair, and that Harry — whose main literary trait is his bright green eyes — has blue eyes in all of the movies.
There are authors that are actively working against this. Junot Diaz’s books intertwine the immigrant experience with Spanish and Dune lines equally. Marlon James, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, is planning on writing an “African Game of Thrones.” The new Star Wars brings some much-needed diversity to the franchise. And now, a talented black actress will bring Hermione to the stage. In the end, J.K. Rowling’s approval is an added bonus, because she still reigns supreme over the Harry Potter canon. But it’s not really the most important aspect of the announcement.
As a black girl who identified with Hermione soooo much growing up, thank you @jk_rowling. Twelve year old me is crying happy tears.
— Angie Thomas (@acthomasbooks) December 20, 2015
Hermione is a revolutionary female character. She’s smart, resourceful, and bossy — and never apologizes for any of that. And let’s be honest: Harry and Ron would have been toast without her. Even beyond that, though, she’s also a powerful face for discrimination in a book series that was literally about the rise of a racial hate group that wears pointy hoods. As a muggle-born, she faces taunts, discrimination, and even violence, like the Basilisk attack in the second book, based on her parentage. Now, black women will see themselves reflected as a strong, capable woman who owns her intelligence, and as a main character in a huge fantasy franchise to boot. And that is revolutionary.