“‘But Hermione Isn’t Black! Is She?’ What Race and Casting Are Really About”

Noma Dumezweni/ Hermione Granger
Noma Dumezweni/
Hermione Granger

Late last year a media kerfuffle arose over the announcement that Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame was black. Or is she? What happened was that the producers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II, a theatrical extravaganza opening this summer in London, revealed that the award-winning actor Noma Dumezweni would be playing the role of Hermione Granger, a choice that immediately set off Twitter and Reddit discussions, arguments, and rants over one supposedly crucial point: Dumezweni is black. Yes, she is also a young woman, an actor who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the winner of an Olivier Award, the highest honor for a stage actor in the UK. All of these facts were subsumed by the “fact” of her race, and the supposed “truth” that the character she was playing—the legendary Hermione Granger—was “really” white. (Warning: be prepared to see a lot of scare quotes in this posting). They’re impossible to avoid in talking about a subject as simultaneously real and fantastic as race).

But is she “really” white? Even while concerned fans were rifling their Potter books, the God of Hermione herself—JK Rowling—quickly intervened:

Is Hermione White Actually, this very question had come up earlier on the website Quora earlier in 2015, prompting this perceptive response from Monika Kothari. Part of her conclusion: “Simply put, there is not enough textual evidence to indicate that Hermione is necessarily white. . . . Most of us assume that Hermione is white because she is never presented as a racial other.” From one point of view, what Kothari says dovetails with Rowling: if you look at the text, the novels never explicitly discuss Hermione’s race. But Kothari’s point goes beyond even Rowling’s. In her playful reference to “canon,” Rowling alludes to the world of fan fiction and adaptation, where “canon” refers to those fan fictions that remain “faithful” to “truth” of the original text (I told you there would be scare quotes). But even that playfulness—and Rowling’s admirable use of her formidable cultural capital to subvert conventional ideas about race—still suggests that there might be a final answer to the question of Hermione’s race.

Noting Rowling’s own willingness to second-guess her authorial decisions and to play with readers’ assumptions in other ways (gay Dumbledore, anyone?), Kothari argues: “I firmly believe that Hermione’s race is ambiguous–and why shouldn’t fans see her as black or biracial or Arab or Pakistani, if it’s meaningful for them?” Well, why shouldn’t they? And so what if Hermione is black? What is really at stake in all this? Many things are at stake, I would argue, but one of them isn’t the question of accuracy and fidelity.

is-a-black-superman-a-good-ideaThe Hermione Granger episode follows other Internet squabbles and trolling-fests over the casting of John Boyega as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the suggestion that Idris Elba would make a great next James Bond (he would), and of course the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which includes both the questions about why Hollywood won’t make more movies about African American life and culture and why Hollywood won’t simply cast more actors of color in all their movies. How about a black Superman? “But he’s from Krypton, and Krypton doesn’t have any . . . “  Well, Krypton doesn’t have any human beings on it to begin with, and yet recognizably human actors have been playing him ever since the first screen adaptations. And of course, there’s the minor point that there is no real Superman nor Krypton to being with.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, media theorist
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, media theorist

The argument over “canon” misses the larger point of what the rise of fan fiction really shows us: there is no “really” when it comes to fiction and the imagination. Two hundred years ago the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief” to describe our engagement with works of fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories—you name it. He couldn’t realize it, but he was also anticipating how fan fiction works, especially how fans of fiction fans are quite willing to suspend disbelief and accept all sorts of imaginative premises (“in my story, Ron, Harry, and Hermione are all otters”) for the pleasures of the text. And here’s the amazing thing: this suspension works. We are able to imagine and accept any imaginative premise in fiction in order to enter a story, a fact that also applies to that fiction we call “real life.”

Many of us know, for example, that in the theatrical culture of Shakespeare’s day (the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century) men and boys were regularly cast in the roles of women. That’s right, Juliet was played by a boy, Cleopatra was played by a man, as were Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. And here’s the thing: the plays worked. They weren’t take as campy and ridiculous (unless, of course, that’s what the actors were going after for comic effect). And we all know this from the world of “let’s pretend” as children. We would make do with the available kids to populate our on-the-fly fictional worlds, crossing lines of age, gender, even species (“I want to be the dog!”).

And it still works today. I’ve seen two productions of Hamlet with women in the title roles . . . and the plays worked. Did the gender casting affect our reactions to the performances? Yes, of course, in multiple and complex ways, but every choice in casting affects our experiences. There is no one “truth” about the experience of Hamlet. And as audience members, not only could we pretend a woman was a man, but we could also pretend that Hamlet was “really” a woman, and even switch back and forth between the two ideas during the performance, all without losing that “suspension of disbelief” because, well, we were “willing.” So what if Hamlet were “black”? It’s been done, as has a production with—wait for it—a black woman (Zainab Jah) as Hamlet!

The question of race has its own vexed and ridiculous history in relation to Shakespeare, especially in relation to Othello, whose title character is famously described as a “Moor.” What is a Moor? In Shakespeare’s time, it was a messy combination of ethnicity (Arab? North African?), race (darker than most people in England?), and religion (usually Muslim). It might have been a little more precise as a designator than, “you know, those guys,” but not much. Beginning in the 19th century, theaters in Europe and the US began reading “Moor” as “black,” for reasons related to how the fictions of race worked in the world of race slavery, abolition, and European colonialism. But if Shakespeare meant Othello to be black, why didn’t he say he was black? Well, he does, sort of, but the real bottom line is that “black” three hundred years ago didn’t mean what “black” meant one hundred years ago or one week ago. And why was emphasizing the racial otherness of this character so important that actors performed Othello in blackface until, well, as I pointed out in a related post last year, it’s still going on.

A recurring point that I’ve made in my blog posts is that issues of casting, race, and ethnicity are not just a part of the history of American movies; they define that history. As a visually-based mass medium, the movies didn’t just “represent” American racial attitudes: they defined and influenced them, as in the long history of blackface performances for “dramatic” rather than comic effect, as in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  The white actors in blackface playing enslaved African Americans didn’t break that “willing suspension” for viewers of that movie. In fact, just think about how complex the reactions of many white-identifying viewers would have been at the time, as they simultaneously “saw” these characters as “black” while taking comfort in also knowing they were “really white,” thus avoiding the anxiety of seeing “real” black actors equally appearing with white actors like Lillian Gish.

The real bottom line: when it comes to the politics of casting, “realism” may be a red herring (and today, the part of the red herring will be played by a bluefish). We an “accept” anyone—or anything, as in stop motion animation (Anomalisa)—as “real” characters.

So when we do argue over a casting choice along the lines of any “defining” characteristic, it’s not really about “believability,” about whether the “race” of the actor playing Hermione Granger has anything to do with our ability to believe the performance. It’s about our willingness to suspend disbelief, and that willingness—or lack thereof, has everything to do with our own investment in the powerful and often brutal social fictions of race, ethnicity, and gender.