Black Hermione and Whitewashing in the Film Industry

Julia Lee | staff writer

The film adaptations of the Harry Potter novels spanned 10 years, ending in 2011, but the magical world and much-loved characters are coming back in a new mediumHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, the eighth and newest installment in the series, will make its first appearance on stage at the Palace Theatre London in July 2016.

Cast as Hermione Granger at the age of 36 is Noma Dumezweni, an English actress born to South African parents.

Fans and bigots alike condemned Dumezweni’s new role, claiming her brown skin and thick, curly hair don’t match those of Emma Watson. But the play’s entire cast is new, and neither of Watson’s main co-stars — Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint — have exact lookalikes on stage, and still, the focus of the criticism remains on Dumezweni.

Watson and Rowling both publicly lauded Dumezweni’s new role. Rowling tweeted about Hermione’s description in the novel, pointing out that the character’s skin color was never specified in the book, and she was described as having “bushy hair” and “brown eyes.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 10.36.31 PMStill, Rowling’s tweet doesn’t erase the initial backlash, which calls into question an issue that begs serious discourse.

In film, whitewashing is the casting practice in which white actors are cast in non-white roles. The trend dates back to the beginning of the Hollywood film industry, starting with blackface. Whitewashing is not a new phenomenon, but common recognition of its problematic nature is newer.

Matching the ethnicity of the actor with the ethnicity of the character is something that has proved inconsistent. Assistant professor of telecommunications in Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences Andrew J. Weaver said in an interview that films are whitewashed to the point where even the minority characters written into them are being cast by whites.

An example of this can be seen in “The Social Network” — the biographical drama directed by David Fincher that portrays the founding of Facebook and the lawsuits that ensued. Facebook co-founder Divya Narendra, who is of Indian descent, voiced his initial surprise at seeing a white actor — Max Minghella — play him on screen.

Weaver conducted two studies to test whether the racial makeup of a film’s cast could influence the decisions of white audiences. One aspect of the study describes his presenting a scenario in which a romantic comedy to be screened contained a high percentage of black actors, and upon being given this information, white participants were less interested in seeing the movie than they would have been if there weren’t as many actors of color.

He states, “There is an assumption in Hollywood that whites would avoid movies with majority black casts, or any minority cast for that matter,” and from this concludes that minority cast members led white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films because the latter perceive themselves as not a part of the intended audience.

While his findings speak to an audience’s general perception of movies, he also refers to a certain discrimination in the casting of roles which suggests that they try to maximize the audience in a white nation by casting all white people. According to the New York Film Academy, only 12.4 percent of speaking characters from the top 500 grossing films released from 2007-2012 were portrayed by black actors, while 75.8 percent of these roles were portrayed by white characters.

Additionally, according to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity report, dominant agencies tended to fill their talent rosters with white male directors, writers and leads — all to the significant exclusion of minorities and females. When confronted with these numbers, industries often justify themselves by saying there is a “shortage of diversity takers out there”, and so the cyclical marginalization of diverse talent and representation continues.

Geena Davis, an actress, theorizes that the big imbalance that exists when it comes to female presence in movies is normalized since that’s all anybody has been exposed to from a very early age. 17 percent of women are represented in crowd scenes in movies, and that same ratio also applies to professions in different segments of society — namely, the number of cardiac surgeons and tenured professors.

Whitewashing leads to a severe lack of representation by people of color in the film industry, even when certain roles were explicitly created and written for them. This kind of representation matters because although films primarily serve as a source of entertainment, the industry is continuing to expand and possesses a significant amount of influence because of the magnitude of the audiences it reaches. When people are exposed to media and see only what they are offered — a lack of variance — what the media is showing them is an inaccurate reflection of the diverse world in which we live, and normalizing such an illusion molds and contributes to an overall and ultimately warped perception of reality. ♦

Photo: Tweet from J.K. Rowling on Noma Dumezweni in the role of Hermione Granger. Photo from twitter.com.

Julia is a first-year student intending to major in Social Work and minor in Creative Writing. She feels really lucky to be a part of such a progressive publication like The Fourth Wave and to go to a university that offers so many resources and opportunities to its students.


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