Culture

In 'Fantastic Beasts', J.K. Rowling Fails at Writing Characters of Colour

The inclusion of Nagini, Leta Lestrange, and Yusuf Kama in the Harry Potter universe is not exactly a triumph for diversity.

by Terry Nguyen
27 November 2018, 7:00am

Photo by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald/Warner Bros.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This article contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

J.K. Rowling’s magical universe in the Harry Potter series has not been immune to scrutiny and postmortem criticism for its lack of character diversity. Despite the few token characters of colour Rowling has tossed into the Hogwarts mix, these critiques appear to have haunted the author years later. Rowling is a revisionist of her own characters’ history, declaring previously unknown facts about Albus Dumbledore’s sexuality and Hermione Granger’s ethnicity in what has been interpreted as an effort to appease progressive fans and popular culture.

With the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Rowling was preemptively prepared to usher diversity into her wizarding world. The script of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was solely written by Rowling, whose tedious storylines and drawn out narratives failed to translate effectively on the big screen. With that, the film’s protagonists—especially her characters of colour—took the biggest hit. Rowling fails to create empathetic, three-dimensional portrayals of her characters of colour, who are instead resigned to outdated and tragic backstories.

Here are how characters like Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Nagini (Claudia Kim), and Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) end up with arcs mired with suffering, neglect, abuse, and limited plot-driven purpose over the course of Rowling’s convoluted two-hour spectacle.

Nagini (Claudia Kim) in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Photo by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald/Warner Bros.

Nagini

In September, the final Fantastic Beasts trailer depicted South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human Nagini, who suffers from a blood curse that turns her into a giant serpent. The casting drew controversy among fans who found it demeaning that an Asian woman would one day turn into a glorified snake servant. Rowling allegedly based Nagini off Indonesian mythology, but her character lacks even the depth of a well-crafted folk tale—she is melancholy and helpless, uttering few substantial lines.

Nagini appears to have the closest relationship with Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), having met during their enslavement in a magical circus. From Nagini’s first scene, it’s evident that she is trapped, under the control of the circus ringmaster and painted as an exotic creature (another harmful Asian female stereotype Rowling unwittingly plays into). Nagini is never fully freed—she is loyally devoted to Credence (which echoes parallels to her later relationship with Voldemort) after he helps her escape the circus, and she takes on a protective, maternal role as Credence searches for his identity.

Rowling’s greatest flaw as a scriptwriter is Nagini’s submissiveness to her fate, and lack of desire to change her future. There are also just too many holes in Nagini’s story: How did she become part of the circus? Why is she so close to Credence? How much longer does she even remain human? In Fantastic Beasts, Rowling gives no indication of Nagini’s later significance in the series. Instead, she’s pushed aside at the expense of other characters’ developments. Her value, arguably, only extends to the audience’s prior knowledge of the Harry Potter universe.

Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Photo by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald/Warner Bros.

Leta Lestrange

In the first film, audiences were teased with Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) prized portrait of Leta Lestrange, and she was expected to play a crucial role in the coming films. Disappointingly, Rowling fails to imbue Leta, arguably the most promising character in this film, with the traits of her most successful protagonists—self-determination and resilience. Instead, Rowling unintentionally turns Leta, a mixed-race woman, into the “tragic mulatto” trope as a character born and bred of tragedy, unhappiness, and unbelonging.

Leta’s violent birth harkens to centuries of racial violence embroiled in the power dynamics of colonialism and slavery. The first flashback of her heritage is a shocking visual sequence in which Leta’s mother, a Senegalese pureblood witch of the Kama clan, is kidnapped in an eerily white Victorian dress by a white French wizard. Her mother is consequently bewitched under the Imperius curse, raped, and dies giving birth to Leta, a mixed-race child who grew up unloved in the Lestrange household.

Leta is thus burdened to care for her half-brother Corvus Lestrange, and the two were sent to America by boat. One night during a storm, Leta switches Corvus for another baby on-board because he wouldn’t stop crying, and when the passengers had to evacuate the boat, Corvus ended up on a lifeboat that didn’t survive the perilous storm.

Leta evidently struggles to accept responsibility for her half-brother’s death, and this trauma manifests itself into her adolescence, adulthood, and even death. “You never met a monster you couldn’t love,” Leta tells Newt, right before she sacrifices herself for the survival of the two (white) Scamander brothers

Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Photo by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald/Warner Bros.

Yusuf Kama

French-African wizard Yusuf Kama is cast as an additional, minor character in the series as the half-brother of Leta. He has sworn an Unbreakable Vow to kill Leta’s other sibling, Corvus Lestrange, as revenge for his kidnapped mother. But beyond Yusuf’s path for vengeance, he is yet another character of colour whose childhood trauma drives his present-day existence. Once Yusuf realizes that Corvus is dead, his character’s purpose and role in the plot is lost.

There is not much canonical knowledge about the African wizarding community. On Pottermore, it’s noted that Uagadou is considered one of the elite wizarding schools based in Africa, and that the Senegalese National Quidditch team made it to the finals of the 1998 Quidditch World Cup. These minor details, however, reinforce the dominant Western narrative of Rowling’s wizarding world, and Yusuf’s character arc only serves as a vehicle for a twisting plot that audiences (and critics) have struggled to understand.

Beyond the visual enchantments and the fantastic nostalgia of the wizarding world, Rowling crucially fails to address the political and cultural tensions referenced in her storylines. The ’ series’ underlying conflict is a testament to the rise of populism in Europe and North America, Rowling said at the first film’s world premiere. In The Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s 1927, and the world is on the brink of a second world war rooted in nationalism, fascist eugenics, and racial tensions—aspects Rowling conveniently substitutes with the divide between magical and non-magical folk.

Rowling likewise glosses over the racist and colonialist history that inspires Leta’s birth, Yusuf’s revenge, and Nagini’s constant imprisonment. That ignorance effectively destroys Rowling’s progressive mirage and the significance of her characters of colour to the narrative. The wizarding world, as she first crafted in the Harry Potter series, is undoubtedly Western and white-dominated. But as popular culture demands increased representation and inclusion—instead of walking back on her errors—Rowling lacks the self-awareness to successfully integrate diverse, well-rounded characters naturally into her work.

Fantastic Beasts might have brought audiences back to a world of magic and whimsical creatures, but no spell can lead audiences to turn a blind eye to Rowling’s poorly written characters of colour.