Warning: heavy spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them within!
It goes without saying that the Harry Potter franchise has, to date, been a distinctly British series. This is true both in setting and in style. Naturally, the story is set in Britain, so of course we see double-decker buses, tight London rowhouses, and everyone has an accent. As a story, J.K. Rowling’s tale gets into typical British storytelling with boarding schools, childhood mischief, and rebellion against authority. It’s all in good fun, although most of us across the pond have probably been curious about where the United States stands in Rowling’s wizarding world. Rowling’s stories hint at a larger world beyond Britain, with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire introducing students from Germany and France, both being markedly representative of their countries. Still, our only hint of Britain’s rebellious cousins come from books like Quidditch Through the Ages which provide the barest of clues about American wizards.
So when we first learned that the film adaption of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would be set in New York City, Americans might have been excited to see themselves reflected in Rowling’s world. Walking out of the movie, though, Americans instead may be…confused. If Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s thesis on the United States, then she seems to be saying that our country is deeply flawed at its roots. As such, Americans might walk out of the film a little perplexed by the ugly mirror which was just held up to them. Or maybe they shouldn’t be, given how divisive the country has been in the past week and long before.
Early in the film, one gets the impression that Rowling is saying that America suffers from an unhealthy amount of prejudice. It’s very tempting to read the movie as a statement on American prejudice, with the ordinary humans (the “No-Maj”) representing bigotry and the magically gifted as the poor and oppressed. While Harry Potter‘s stories show a Britain that’s at least aware of wizardry (Harry lives with his human aunt and uncle, and Hermoine’s parents are both Muggles), Fantastic Beasts shows a New York City where wizards are, in essence, closeted.
They seem to have good reason to be so, as well. Early on in the film, we’re introduced to the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a proto-Nazi looking organization run by Mary Lou Barebone. They’re at least aware of the existence of magic users, and they’re openly advocating a 20th-century witch hunt. They adopt children and train them in bigoted little nursery rhymes which might sound cute if they weren’t advocating for murder. It’s unsurprising that Porpentina looks terrified when she sees Barebone openly preaching on the street.
It’d be very tempting, then, to perceive Fantastic Beasts‘ wizards as the oppressed minority and the normal humans as the villains. Most of the humans we meet look, well, white and privileged. The re-election campaign for Henry Shaw, Jr. shows an expensive dinner for a room full of well-dressed, caucasian donors. Meanwhile, the wizards are an openly diverse group: the president of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) is a black woman, and the larger wizarding council is full of minorities and women. We get at least hints in Fantastic Beasts that there’s a brewing conflict between the normals and the wizards, and this story could be going the road of an X-Men type franchise of an oppressed minority against a larger, “normal” powerhouse that doesn’t get them.
Problem is, that’s not exactly what Rowling seems to be saying. In America, the wizards at large aren’t quite the good guys either. Their self-imposed segregation may be justified (the “New Salem” movement suggesting that the original event in Rowling’s world did, in fact, kill some mages), but it’s also made the wizards problematic in their own way. On encountering other wizards in America, Newt Scamander finds that they’re oppressive in their own way on the other side of the fence. They require wand registration, not trusting their own kind to carry freely. The MACUSA headquarters has a “threat clock” constantly showing how dangerous things are at the moment, a little too reminiscent of our modern alerts from Homeland Security. And in one of the story’s more disturbing scenes, the MACUSA attempts to euthanize Newt and Tina Goldstein when they’re accused of causing a human death.
Atop those issues, there’s a clear theme in Fantastic Beasts that the wizarding community is suffering from segregation. Contact between wizards and the “No-Maj” (the name itself being a bit of a slur) of any kind is strictly forbidden. This includes intermarriage, the fact of which utterly disgusts Newt. Wizards and their magical creatures infrequently damage the human world around them, but some quick magical repair and mindwipe easily corrects that. So when the wizard Queenie Goldstein and the human Jacob Kowalski fall in love…well, it’s all very cute, but it’s also doomed because that kind of relationship just isn’t allowed.
In other words, Fantastic Beasts turns expectations on their heads and suggests that America’s good guys–the wizards–aren’t quite so good other than in their own minds. The humans seem prejudiced, but beyond the New Salem movement, we see little open bigotry from them. The reactions we do see might be justified since a magical force does end up killing a U.S. Senator in the middle of a speech. And the film’s climactic final battle causes a tremendous amount of destruction, and rather than take responsibility for it, MACUSA’s solution is to steal everyone’s memories without their permission.
Rowling’s statement on America, then, seems to be not about bigotry so much as it is about segregation. The separation of humans and the No-Maj, however well-intentioned, is harmful in the long run and is prejudicial in its own right. For a country which calls itself the United States of America, we do seem to be a country that leans towards division. Fantastic Beasts gives us humans vs. No-Maj, but in reality, we’ve had divisions in every era of American history. Today, it’s Republicans versus Democrats and conservatives versus liberals. But in the past, we’ve had the segregationists versus integrationists, abolitionists versus slaveholders, and loyalists versus patriots. When forces on extreme sides of any given issue get into conflict…well, America gets through it, but the journey there is always very ugly and involves a lot of pain along the way.
To that end, Fantastic Beasts‘ release seems to be inadvertently well-timed following one of our nation’s more divisive elections. Most of us have seen barbed words tossed about in the news, at protests, and on our own social media. People voted as they did for very different reasons, and they’re finding it incomprehensible that other people don’t see things as they did. “Unfriending” on social media is accelerating, and Americans are doubling down on their desire to gravitate towards people who think as they do. This isn’t a universal tendency–here’s a writer at a prominent website pledging to figure out why people voted the way they did even as he disagrees with them–but it’s definitely a trend right now.
Oh, and don’t take any of the above as an indictment of the left. My observations really are on both sides of the aisle–I’ve seen my share of post-election bad behavior from people on the right as well. What I will say is that, anecdotally, many people seem to be intentionally limiting their social circles to people who share their own politics. This may feel good, but it’s also not getting us anywhere.
Fantastic Beasts offers an opportunity to reflect on whether being insular as Americans gets us anywhere. Could America’s muggles and wizards ever learn to live in harmony? The film gives them every reason not to, magic harms the human world, but humans have killed wizards and they’d like to do it again. But it doesn’t have to be. The friendship between Newt and Jacob Kowalski, along with Jacob’s budding romance with Queenie, give hope that opposites can actually get along with each other and be stronger for it.
Looking at our own culture through the lens of Fantastic Beasts, it asks whether divided Americans can look across the divide at each other and try to find common ground, and with it, peace and reconciliation.