RaceWire Goes to the Movies: Harry Potter Edition

By Channing Kennedy Jul 17, 2009

Since the RaceWire group review of Star Trek sparked such a great discussion, and because we’re nerds, we played hooky from work on Wednesday to catch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (Does it count as playing hooky if your boss comes along?) If you didn’t already commit it to memory, check out our own Anusuya Sivaram’s racial justice viewing guide for HP6. We’d also like to thank Professor Giselle Liza Anatol for her inspiring essays, "The Fallen Empire: Exploring Ethnic Otherness in the World of Harry Potter," and "The Replication of Victorian Racial Ideology in Harry Potter." And for another race-aware dissection of the Hogwarts agenda, we recommend Dana Goldstein’s article "Harry Potter and the Complicated Identity Politics." Oh, and you see that comment form at the bottom? That’s just for you. What do you think about what we think? All right, enough exposition; let’s go! Something I find particularly interesting about Harry Potter is the method by which it portrays the history of London — it simply ignores it. London was the capitol of the largest governmental empire in the history of the world, and yet Harry Potter leaves unaddressed London’s policies and daily interactions toward its post-colonial inhabitants. London’s demographics — 40% people of color — are also ignored. — Jonathan Yee I’m pretty surprised that the new Harry Potter movie didn’t address Wizarding involvement in the Muggle world to the same extent as J.K. Rowling did in the book. Other than a few opening shots of bridge destruction by smoke-trailing hooded figures, there was nothing. In contrast, the beginning of the sixth novel describes a meeting between the Prime Minister of Muggles and the newly elected Wizarding Prime Minister. Through their conversation, it’s apparent that the two populations lead parallel lives that never intersect on a personal level. The exception occurs when war breaks out in the Wizarding world — Muggles become both collateral damage and pawns of war, dehumanized by wizarding authorities. When Death Eaters cause mass casualties, Muggle deaths are hushed up; when they attack Muggles for sport — analogous to lynchings — memories are modified and cover stories are spread. The treatment of Muggles as powerless and sub-human can be understood as social commentary on our world. Discrimination is dehumanizing, and victims of racism are simply pawns in a larger structure that leaves them no methods for recourse. Though understandable, it’s a shame that the director didn’t spread this part of Rowling’s message. — Anusuya Sivaram While I’m not a big fan of the HP books or movies, after putting on my racial thinking cap, I found a few things that left a sour taste in my mouth. Professor Slughorn shows a clear aversion for Muggles, like Hermione; while Slughorn is clearly not posed as a role model, the movie never satisfactorily resolves this particular unsavory characteristic of his. Although there is an interracial relationship in the story, between Ginny and a little-seen boy, it’s oddly framed by a protracted conversation about Ginny’s fair skin. Lastly, there is incessant and unnecessary swooning over men in this film — not racial, but still quite annoying. — Cindy Von Quednow Though I haven’t read, and will never read, the Harry Potter books, I can always tell with scenes in the movies are making a token gesture back to the source. You know what I mean: "Harry, what do you think about that girl?" "Which one?" "That one in the background, who doesn’t have any lines. Anyway, let’s go rescue a cup or something." I assume that, in the books, Background Student #580 is a compelling and fleshed-out character, and perhaps the book-readers in the audience can project that onto her 28 frames of silent celluloid. The rest of us only get to see tokenism — an afterthought of casting, to offset the uniform pastiness of our foregrounded heros and villains as they clash over the fate of the genetically impure. Classy stuff. And as if that weren’t bad enough, these diminished characters are hella fine! The girl from the café who asks Harry out — daaamn! What’s-her-face, whose love potions get more screen time than she does — why the hell does she need love potions? The guy on the train with Malfoy, whose entire performance consists of a single stifled snicker — introduce us, you blond-ass emo wiz-racist! And Cho Chang! Cho Chang, whom Harry was getting on with so well in the last movie, to the point where she had lines, and who is completely absent from this one… how did Harry blow that? Is this the series end’s big reveal — that Harry is a moron? Unlike the recent Star Trek movie, which gave its characters of color lines but no roles, the Harry Potter film series gives its POCs neither lines nor roles, and gives us no compelling reasons for banishing such, um, talented actors to the Azkaban of Perpetual Set-Dressing. — Channing Kennedy A major effort in this film was to establish a large number of dating scenarios within the (supposedly) 15-16 year old set. Among the starring cast, all are longingly thwarted from being involved with each other’s very white selves, but the other students are not so constrained. As the Hogwarts student body takes tiny steps towards looking somewhat like the population of London, it’s interesting to see that the only prejudice existing is the one some have towards the mundane-born; other than that, we’re visiting a deeply post-racial fantasy. I won’t totally dismiss this, as i am reminded of my high school writing teacher saying: If you want to make your point, show it, don’t say it. — Darlene Pagano The Harry Potter franchise follows along the same lines as many Hollywood movies – one ordinary person with superhuman powers swoops in to save the rest of humanity from imminent destruction. There is a feel-good factor to this ubiquitous movie plot line. All this type of democracy requires from you is to pay your $15 for a movie, popcorn, and soda and sit back while someone else rescues the world. It sounds a lot like American politics, where the electorate is supposed to vote, maybe once every one, two or four years, and then our elected officials will take care of the rest. In Andrea Batista Schlesinger’s new book The Death of Why, she points out that most Americans don’t pay attention to what their politicians actually do after they vote. In typical Hollywood filmgoer fashion, the American electorate waits for its politicians to save the day. The politicians are helped along by the story we are told in the mainstream media that the most intractable problems have already been solved (racism, structural inequality) and the real pressing problems cannot be solved (shark attacks or serial killers). I’m not sure why the other students at Hogwarts and the rest of London or the world for that matter are never enlisted to Harry Potter’s grand fights of good against evil. But the lesson is not to sit back and wait to be enlisted while our politicians continue to make a mess of the economy and the planet. It’s not time for Harry Potter or President Barack Obama to save us. Like the old civil rights saying goes, "we are the ones we’ve been waiting for." — Debayani Kar