So, you may have heard about casting of award winning actor Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And the controversy surrounding that is the reaction of many fans to the fact that the actor is black. Whereas, Hermione is definitely, white right? Not necessarily. J.K. Rowling didn’t seem to think it went against canon. She said in a tweet: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair, very clever. White skin was never specified.” Book readers can’t blame themselves for having viewed her as white. I personally didn’t realize some characters (Dean Thomas, Blaise Zabini) were black until the movie. And since Emma Watson is white, it seems fair to conclude that Hermione is white. But perhaps the role is easily transferable to a black character. Maybe the role of Hermione isn’t race-specific? Except for the fact that if Hermione really was black, it makes me view her in a completely different context.
If you’ve only watched the movies and never read the books, then you probably view Hermione as the very competent and very intelligent witch who always has the answers, always knows what to do next, and always saves the day. Harry and Ron seem incompetent fools next to her. And it has led to several posts about why on earth isn’t Hermione the protagonist of the series? Here’s a particularly overtly feminist take on that.
Part of the reason for this kind of reaction is the fact that Steve Kloves, the screen writer absolutely loved Hermione and very likely shipped Harry and Hermione (come on that hug in GoF and the dance scene in DH1). He emphasized all her strengths, minimized or downright erased all her flaws, and gave many of Harry and Ron’s best lines and heroic moments to her. Ron, especially, was relegated to the comic sidekick role. So much so, that he wasn’t even that necessary to the plot, or a necessary part of the trio. Here is one of the many analyses of how the movies shortchanged Ron for the sake of Hermione. No wonder people who haven’t read the books can’t understand what Hermione sees in Ron or why they ended up together!
Emma Watson may represent the definitive version of Hermione for many people, but she definitely didn’t to me. Hermione is a very flawed character. She’s not only smart, she constantly needs to assert that she is smart. She has to shoot her hand up in the air every time the teacher asks a question and she won’t let anyone else answer. In Snape’s words, she’s an “insufferable know-it-all”. I mean that comment was mean and everything, but if I were in class with Hermione, I’d actually find her very annoying. She can be very bossy and self-righteous, which her friends do find monumentally annoying (S.P.E.W. and the time she told McGonagall about the Firebolt). But most of all, she is very insecure and a lot less confident than Emma Watson made her out to be. This is likely more on Steve Kloves than Emma, but to be honest, smart and confident is a much better fit for Emma Watson than smart but insecure.
And now let’s add to this mix the fact that perhaps she was black. Why does this change the way I view her? Racial tensions as we see in the real world don’t really exist in Rowling’s wizarding world. There never appeared to be any instance of discrimination based on race. But there was plenty of discrimination based on lineage. Hermione was Muggle-born, and thus bullied and ostracized by the elitist group of wizards. She is called the “M-word” (Mudblood). People are taken aback by her intelligence and her skill because she is Muggle born and people like the Malfoys find it insulting that she is the top of her class.
Of course I knew that the discrimination faced by Muggle-borns was a commentary on the discrimination we see in the real world today. But if Hermione is black, if I imagine a black Hermione going through all the trials and tribulations the character faces, suddenly I am able to view the discrimination through a real-world lens.The struggles she faces as a Muggle-born are struggles people of color face in the real world. And her struggles are made more real to me than they had been for the past seventeen years in which I have known her.
With that said, it was interesting that the Cursed Child play whole-heartedly embraces the movie portrayal of Hermione and Ron, in which she is superhumanly competent and he is just a clown. It goes to show just how much the movies have succeeded in planting their version of the characters in everyone’s psyche and has almost completely erased Ron.