Harry Potter

How a black Hermione reflects one of the core values of the Harry Potter series

As a child of Muggles, Hermione is always something of an outside among wizards.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any piece of information related to the Harry Potter franchise, no matter how small, must be worthy of inciting interest and debate. Given this context, any actors who found themselves cast in the upcoming play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, were bound to see an uptick in the visitors to their IMDB and/or Wikipedia pages.

They were also bound to face a load of expectation and/or scepticism, given the extremely large and fearlessly opinionated fandom of the franchise. To bring to life a character from Harry Potter, especially one of the golden trio – Harry, Ron and Hermione – is to take on a very heavy mantle and invite comparisons, no matter how unfair, to how Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson did the job on screen.

So really, Jamie Parker, Paul Thornley and Noma Dumezweni would have faced a lot of attention anyway, even if one of them didn’t happen to be a black actress.

The decision to cast Hermione, one of the principal and most beloved of the characters in the series, as dark-skinned has largely received welcome, even if it is mixed with surprise. This is far from the first time fans have questioned Hermione’s skin colouring, which Rowling never quite specified in the books.

In fact, Rowling herself came out in defence of the casting with the following tweet: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair, and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”. She followed it up with an emoji blowing a kiss, to underline her support.

Of course, there are those people who cannot quite stomach the idea that the character, who was famously played by Emma Watson (who happens to be a white actress), could be anything other than white-skinned. Twitter users lashed back at Rowling’s tweet, searching the books to find any reference to the character’s skin colour, and accusing Rowling of “pandering to the PC crowd” by extending her support to the directors’ choice of actress. One user even went so far as to call her attitude the product of “self-inflicted white guilt”.

Who is Hermione?

The criticism that the decision has unleashed sheds a curious light on the character of Hermione herself. An outsider at the start of the series, much like Harry, Hermione is a misfit in the wizarding world. Being the daughter of Muggle parents, she faces prejudice within the walls of Hogwarts itself, much before the darker shade of Voldemort rears his resurrected head.

Hermione serves as Rowling’s route to highlighting the “pure blood mania” that drives many of Voldemort’s followers, a philosophy that has parallels in the real world to the Nazi’s eugenics drive and the apartheid policies of South Africa. The philosophy preaches that wizards and witches born to “Muggle” or non-magical parents are of lesser worth, their blood impure, earning them the epithet “Mudbloods”.

For all her brilliance and innate ability to grasp difficult concepts (indeed, to resort to logic when faced with a problem, a tactic that eludes most adult wizards), Hermione is a second class citizen in this world to some of its characters. Rowling takes pains to illustrate that these characters are misguided and their attitudes wrong; it is rather ironic that the same treatment is being meted out to the actress who is to bring her to life once again.

And make no mistake, Dumezweni promises to deliver a power-packed performance as a thirty-something Hermione. In 2006, she won the Olivier Award, recognised as the highest award in British theatre and the equivalent of the American Tony Awards, for her role in A Raisin in the Sun.

Recently, she reportedly stepped in to play the title role in the play Linda a week before previews began, when Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall quit, an act which critics hailed as the “rescue mission of the year”. Certainly, she seems to be brilliant at what she does, and there’s no need to believe she would not bring that level of professionalism and talent to her stint as Hermione Granger.

Beyond the canon

What does it mean though, to the larger world, that one of the most beloved and iconic of children’s books characters has been cast as not white? It shows a willingness to engage, on the director’s part, with the idea that powerful characters need not, by default, belong to a specific race, that the ideas that these people embody translate across colour lines.

Maybe it also takes into account the idea that many children who read these books might have seen themselves in the character, and that those children may have looked different from Emma Watson.

The “canon” does not always win out over a reader’s imagination after all, and seeing oneself in a character often leads to a certain amount of colour-blindness. Finally, haters gonna hate, but black Hermione is real, and she’s here.

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