Harry Potter, the Wire, and What My Yellow A** learned about Diversity This Summer

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Chow Yun Fat, George Harris as Kingsley Shacklebolt, Joseph Mawle

In August the hashtag #IfHogwartsWasanHBCU came across my Twitter feed. (HBCU = Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Buzzfeed aggregated a bunch of the tweets showing a combination of preferred casting choices (Morgan Freeman playing Dumbledore, Amandla Stenberg as Hermione), political satire (the KKK as Dementors, and “Defense against the White Arts”) and in-jokes about HBCUs, black fraternities and African American church culture.

I read the Harry Potter books, all of them, even. They came out well into my adulthood, but as someone who grew up reading Tolkien, I’m sure I was part of the ancillary market. I also watched the movies, although mostly not in the theaters because they came out in the years when I had babies and didn’t go to movies. There again, I’m of the generation who grew up with Willow, The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride, so I’m on the marketing spreadsheet somewhere.

I appreciated the biting comedy of “Defense against the White Arts” and I like recasting popular culture with gender and race reshuffling. I tried my hand at the hashtag game.

I spent most of last spring binge watching the Wire, so I started there with the core cast. Maestro Harrell’s heartbreaking turn as Randy Wagstaff fit with Harry’s canniness and vulnerability. I struggled a bit with whether Michael B. Jordan would be better as Harry, but decided he fit more as Ron.

And Jermaine Crawford was a no-brainer for Neville Longbottom.

Part of what I was doing was promoting a fantasy of the actors’ characters in the Wire, whose lives were so broken, living and growing up. Neville Longbottom, an orphaned, bullied and dispirited child becomes a successful and indeed powerful adult. I wanted that for the Wire’s despised, dirty, and bright Dukey.

For some characters I started with my favored Wire actor and tried to find a good fit in the Potter universe. I had a crush on Lance Reddick’s Cedric Daniels, so I had to find a place for him, and the stern arrogance of Lucius Malfoy was a decent match.

Then there were characters who were the other way around. Bill Weasley is an intriguing character who got short shrift in the movies and it took me a bit of thinking, but Jamie Hector works well, not just because of a facial scar, but also because he can play a good guy as well as a bad one.

In the case of Wendell Pierce as Mr. Weasley, I’m not sure which came first, but they’re the tough guy hiding inside a buffoon.

A couple I’m particularly proud of are Andre Royo as Severus Snape and Michael K. Williams as Sirius Black. Royo is an exceptional actor and although Snape looks at first glance quite different from Royo’s addled addict Bubbles in The Wire, they have similar complexity and depth.

I never found Sirius Black terribly interesting as a character. He’s really more like a plot device than a person, but Michael K. William’s Omar Little conveys the right brooding tragedy.

This is around where I lose the thread of the Wire. The Wire does not perform terribly well on the Bechdel-Wallace test, across its five season run, although it did have Sonya Sohn’s powerful Kima Greggs. (I loved the character, but haven’t found a Potter role for Sohn yet – I couldn’t picture her as Belletrix or Mrs. Weasley, for example). I had to look elsewhere for the principle female characters.

Veteran character actor CCH Pounder was easy for McGonagal, and Lupita Nyongo was obvious for Fleur Delacoeur

Mrs. Weasley was pretty hard. I started to really struggle with the lack of diversity in mainstream popular culture. Combined with the fact that I haven’t spent as much time watching TV or going to movies in the last twenty years as I did in my teens, I didn’t have broad enough an array of African American actors of all ages and body types floating in my head. I decided to cast Queen Latifah as Mrs. Weasley, although I have mixed feeling about it. She seems a little young and glamorous for the role, but I know she can act and she can convey good times and kickass equally well (I guess Alfre Woodard would be another option).

It felt craven, but I skipped Hermione and Luna, since I didn’t think I could improve on Stenberg and Willow Smith as Luna, and I had an even harder time coming up with young black women than mature black women. I gave myself a pat on the head when I finally cast Zoe Kravitz as Ginny Weasley.

Angela Bassett as Belletrix LeStrange was much easier.

As I went through the process I thought a lot about what I was doing. I’m not Black. I’m Yellow. I went to a Seven Sisters college, not an HBCU. Part of the original “HBCU” hashtag includes slang and patter about the experience of HBCU attendance, and even if I knew the subtext and could convey the nuances, to do so would feel like cultural appropriation. Was it appropriation even participating in the hashtag – like laughing too loudly at someone else’s in-joke?

I also asked myself if even trying to cast an all-black Harry Potter was the wrong exercise altogether. For me it was less about HBCUs, but simply putting an entire story into a different racial mold. Should I do that, just based on skin color with no other cultural context?

I really had to think about this question in relation to the few characters of color in Harry Potter. For example, Alfie Enoch plays Dean Thomas, one of the supporting Gryffindor cast. I wanted to switch Alfie into another role because I suspect he gets a lot of “token” roles. I briefly considered casting Enoch as Draco Malfoy, but it just seemed wrong. For Malfoy I resorted to simply googling “Black actors under 25”. And found Kofi Siriboe, who I think looks perfect.

Then I realized that Alfie Enoch, who is generally photographed with an open, cheerful countenance, actually looks more like I picture Cedric Diggory than Robert Pattinson does.

When it came to Cho Chang, my brain seized up all together. For one thing, she is not an interesting character (to me) in either the books or the movie, even though I appreciate her diversity. For another thing, using a binary construction of race, was I “supposed” to cast her as black or white? Then I realized that in some respects, casting a “black” Harry Potter is no different for me than casting a “white” Harry Potter. Some existential confusion is characteristic of being a non-black person of color in America anyway. Neither one is me. As a woman and person of color, I have spent my life putting myself into the shoes of white and male protagonists, while also internalizing the history of American racism that derives mostly (but far from exclusively) from the historical relationship of white and black.

Harry Potter is white and male, and the setting of Harry Potter draws very much on British private school culture. Not only am I assumed to be capable of empathizing and engaging with a character who is white and male, but also his distinctive English class and social context. I’ve spent my whole life borrowing and trying on white faces. Fantasy and science fiction are explicitly and implicitly white in both complexion and culture (The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars both come to mind).

So why aren’t I sitting around casting Harry Potter with Asians? Or Hispanics for that matter? Well, I considered it. And the fact of the matter is, how many Asian and Hispanic actors do I know? How many have I seen in enough roles to have an intuitive sense of how to hold their faces and best known performances up against a backdrop of Harry Potter? It’s even harder for me to do that than it is for me to come up with African American actors. At least with male African American actors over the age of 50, I can come up with several. Samuel L. Jackson as Mad-eye Moody is really too obvious.

And while I can see why everyone would assume Morgan Freeman as Dumbledore, we can even do the replacement casting after Richard Harris’s death, and cast Danny Glover.

And if you’re wondering how I could skip Denzel Washington, don’t worry. He’s Voldemort.

I can come up with some “brown” actors in this general age range: Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi. But “yellow” actors familiar to an English speaking audience? George Takei might make a decent Dumbledore. Pat Morita is dead. Um… Ken Watanabe? (Okay for Moody or maybe Mr. Weasley). Chow Yun Fat? (Kingsley Shacklebolt or Voldemort). Jackie Chan? (No. just…no.)

As you get younger, there’s Naveen Andrews, Dev Patel (Ron Weasley, I think), Daniel Dae Kim (Lucius Malfoy, perhaps) and John Oh. Women actors of color are no easier. Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling, Margaret Cho (picture her as Belletrix!) and Lucy Liu come to mind fairly easily. Rinku Kikuchi, Michele Yeoh and Zhiyi Zhang are all probably familiar faces to English speaking audiences. None of them provide a go-to option for either McGonagal or Hermione.

I’m certain an actual casting director could field a complete cast of Harry Potter with outstanding APA and Latinx talent, if they wanted to. (There’s even a good lucking young hapa actor out there named Ryan Potter). But as a lay person sitting here now I can’t do the exercise with the ease I can with African American actors. The Wire was considered one of the best, deepest casts for African American actors ever. Is there an equivalent for other “diverse” actors?

I’d love to see a fantasy or science fiction block buster where the default appearance of the characters isn’t European origin. And where the characters of color weren’t there to make a point that the cast is Diverse. That’s the Star Trek trick (with all due respect to Nichelle Nichols and George Takei) and it continues in more recent franchises like Hunger Games. In fact a big part of casting science fiction in a “diverse” way is to use characters who aren’t even human. James Cameron is basically re-treading the “nobel savage” in Avatar and Yoda is every inscrutable sensei, with bigger ears and greener skin. This avoids having to deal with authentic human difference using actual humans.

One of the best parts of The Wire is the way it shows multiple character tropes across multiple races (even though it performs much more poorly with gender). There’s more than one “mouthy,” “cerebral” or “tragic” character and they exist separately and authentically in the same universe. Ensemble casts have gotten better since the days of Goonies and Scooby Do, but they still look like they are assembled with a cookbook:

  • 1-2 Women
  • 2 blacks (one can be a woman)
  • 1 Asian or Hispanic. If ensemble > 10, both permissible
  • 1 queer or disabled character

Combine within the following parameters:

  • Smart Ass (Asian, Woman, or Don Cheadle)
  • Leader (likely to be a White Man unless you’re working to send a Message)
  • Tough but Stupid (White or Black Man)
  • Lethal (Asian and Woman qualify but not a lock on this role)
  • Sexy (Woman or White Man)
  • Dork (again, Asian or Woman can qualify)

And everyone else is “normal,” namely: a white dude. Isn’t that how the cast of Harry Potter, Ocean’s Eleven, The Expendables, the Lord of the Rings, Aliens, and most police procedural and superhero franchises all work?

Picturing Idris Elba as Remus Lupin is pretty cool. It’s just as engaging to me as David Thewlis (if not more so), but I’d like to dream bigger. I’d like to be able to pick up a book or sit down in a movie theater and have it be just as likely that Remus Lupin, Hermione Granger, Minerva McGonagal, Molly Weasley OR Kingsley Shacklebolt would look and sound like me. I’ve never in my life had that happen. But I can hope.

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Clockwise from top left: Andy Lau, David Thewlis as Remus Lupin, Idris Elba, Joan Chen

 

 

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