CULTURE & ARTS

'Black Hermione' Backlash Proves Outrage Is About Race, Not Canon

Hey guys, the actor playing Harry doesn't have black hair, either!

A photo posted by @hpplayldn on

The producers of the hotly anticipated play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” following Harry and his two best friends in adulthood, announced Monday that the lead female role of Hermione Granger would be played by a black actress, Noma Dumezweni.

The announcement drew angry outcry from certain fans, who viewed Hermione as a white character in the books. “Ghostbusters with all women? Hermione turned black? Why? Can't we just leave good casting alone?” tweeted one, apparently baffled, observer.

In the blockbuster series of “Harry Potter” movies, Hermione was portrayed by actress Emma Watson, the very picture of the classic, pale-skinned English rose. But that in itself doesn’t mean the canonical character was necessarily a white girl.

In the Harry Potter books, Hermione Granger is described as having brown eyes, bushy brown hair, and an air of obnoxious self-confidence. (And, initially, oversized front teeth, before she gets them shrunk by the Hogwarts Healer, Madame Pomfrey.) Her skin color never merits a mention.

J.K. Rowling herself gently pointed this out on Twitter, in response to fans insisting that Hermione was white in the books.

Hearteningly, plenty of fans also spoke out in support of the casting. Still, it’s telling that the choice of Dumezweni, a Swaziland-born actress with a resume as impressive as Hermione herself, has been at the center of so much angry chatter.  

At the New Republic, Esther Breger pointed out that the actor cast as Ron Weasley, Paul Thornley, doesn’t exactly resemble the freckle-splattered, tomato-haired boy that readers will recall from the books. What’s more, the actor who will play Harry Potter, Jamie Parker, lacks Harry’s jet-black mop, green eyes, and angular physique.

Of course, these deviations from descriptions -- from the iconic traits that identified those characters, no less -- haven’t drawn a peep from purportedly canon-conscious fans. Actors cast as major characters in popular movies frequently differ in significant ways from their book descriptions. The "Harry Potter" films alone are an excellent example. Watson’s Hermione never displayed enormous front teeth, as she was repeatedly described as having in the books. Rupert Grint as Ron was a fiery redhead, but not a bony beanpole.

Remember these guys? They're very white, but that didn't make them perfectly canon-adherent.
Remember these guys? They're very white, but that didn't make them perfectly canon-adherent.

Remember when Daniel Radcliffe began playing Harry Potter -- with blue eyes? Green contact lenses were attempted, but Radcliffe suffered a very bad reaction to the lenses and the plan had to be abandoned. Ultimately, the film moved ahead with a blue-eyed Harry, despite the heavy emphasis on his green eyes in the book. There was some irritable discussion of this among fans, but no massive outcry, no suggestion that the film producers were being cavalier with the text or perverting it.

Hiding behind devotion to canon is a poor excuse for what can only be simple racism. It’s not that Hermione may look different from how we imagined her, or how she was described in the books -- it’s that she must be white, for many fans.  

This has even shown up in cases when black actors were cast as characters explicitly described as brown-skinned, such as the backlash to Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue in “The Hunger Games.” Even though Suzanne Collins clearly described Rue as dark-skinned, many fans felt convinced that the innocent figure of Rue ought to be a white girl, tweeting complaints such as “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the innocent blonde girl you picture.” 

Actress Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in "The Hunger Games."
Actress Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in "The Hunger Games."

In reality, translating fictional characters to the screen is a daunting task. Most readers have visions of the characters in their heads, and matching those visions for all, or even most, readers is a fool’s errand. Worse, if the character is carefully described in the text, finding a talented actor who matches that description and is available to perform might be next to impossible -- imagine being on the hunt for a pale, black-haired, green-eyed 11-year-old who’s strong enough as an actor to carry an entire series.

The actors who portray our fictional heroes won’t exactly match what we expected, or hoped, but we understand that enough to let it pass, because the real world is imperfect and messy.

Unless, of course, race is involved.

Unfortunately, that’s where the world needs understanding the most, and the insight to see not “black Hermione” and “Hermione,” but different actresses bringing an iconic character to life in unique and powerful ways. So come on, Harry Potter fans. Let’s all strive to be a little bit more like the series’ most equality-minded character.

Yes, that would be Hermione Granger herself.

 

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