If Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the product of a wizard’s potion, the magical brew would be made of one part special effects and three parts blunt force allegory.
The new movie and Harry Potter brand extension, which opened in theaters over the weekend, takes place in a pre-Civil Rights era America, and uses wizards and witches as the stand-in for subjugated minorities. And while this makes sense on the surface, the movie does everything it can to downplay any signs of mass discrimination and make the wizard protagonists as unsympathetic as possible. In fact, even a cursory look at the film’s politics shows a flawed line of thinking that seems to actually work against its intended message and even advocate for the so-called villains.
For the most part, the discrimination against wizards and witches is spoken about, but not seen. The major hate speech thrown at them comes from the unimaginatively titled extremist group New Salem, which is really just an insane woman named Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) and a few orphans that she’s brainwashed. They protest against wizards in front of a bank, for some reason, but no one takes them seriously. And why should they? After all, no one has any reason to believe that wizards and witches even exist.
In J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter series, wizards and witches tried to keep their magical world out of the Muggle public eye, but there was no iron curtain; wizards and witches married Muggles, Muggles proudly raised kids who attended Hogwarts, and the Ministry of Magic had a relatively productive relationship with the UK government.
In Fantastic Beasts, however, none of that is true. Set almost 70 years earlier, the film introduces a strict separation between wizards and No-Majs (the awful American name for Muggle); wizards and witches must live in the shadows, drinking in extra-secret speakeasies and avoiding any non-wizard at all costs. And it’s not mobs of intolerant citizens or regressive U.S. government laws that are chasing them into the shadows; instead, the rules are laid out by the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA), which is hellbent on keeping its wizards and witches’ lives as segregated and unenlightened as possible.
While the main plot focuses on a magical zoologist named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his ad hoc crew, including a No-Maj named Jacob (Dan Fogel), it eventually brings them into the path of an auror named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). Graves, without telling his bosses at MACUSA, is working with a repressed member of the New Salem group named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to infiltrate and presumably take down their anti-magic protests.
Credence is a wizard deep down, but because Mary Lou, his adoptive mother, is the leader of New Salem, he cannot reveal his magical side. Suppressing such powers eventually creates a sort of magical parasite, and when he’s emotional, he unleashes a dark power called the Obscurus — he literally becomes a black cloud of sadness and death. This is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for the damage done to communities that cannot live their truths — it brings the gay community’s suffering during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘80s immediately to mind — which makes MACUSA’s response even more puzzling.
For some reason, they’d rather ignore the plight of young people suffering and would rather shoot the kid instead of trying to help him. And it’s not an isolated incident. MACUSA refuses to confront New Salem at all. They don’t even want to erase any evidence of magic from the memories of its No-Maj members, even though they are not shy about employing the tactics with any other No-Maj. It is almost as if they welcome the venom thrown their way.
As the action ramps up, and Credence’s Obscurus begins to create chaos around the city, Percival makes his motivations clear. “I refuse to bow down any longer,” he declares, adding that he’s sick of watching his fellow wizards and witches “scurrying around like rats.” It seems like the sort of wake up call that would convince his colleagues to change their minds, to amend the strict anti-mixing laws and work towards an open dialogue with the No-Majs or its government.
Instead, they decide that Percival is a threat to their fragile, closeted status quo. And though the big revelation about his secret identity proves them right, in retrospect, it’s a convenient deus ex machina to justify their actions. Ultimately, the MACUSA simply wants to keep its wizards and witches in a state of collective fear, and the trouble is they are supposed to be the good guys. The argument they seem to be making is that this is done to keep the wizards and witches safe, but that’s the sort of paternal case made by oppressive governments and overly cautious parents.
Social progress always requires mass movements that make people in power uncomfortable. All of our revered civil rights leaders did that, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Susan B. Anthony and Harvey Milk. And yet in Fantastic Beasts, a catch-all civil rights allegory, any sort of effort at liberation is deemed unacceptable and dangerous. Even Jacob, the friendly, loyal No-Maj who falls in love with a witch, cannot be allowed to remember any of his adventurous encounter with magic. And sure, this is just fiction, but a generation of kids who grew up with Harry Potter are looking to the books and movies again for moral guidance, particularly after the results of the presidential election. And with that in mind, Fantastic Beasts’s encouragement of segregation is extra disturbing.
Today, all decent people agree that representation is an important building block to equality. And yet, in a film written by one of the most outspoken liberal voices on social media, all traces of wizards and witches must be erased from the minds of an entire city of people, even if many of them, like Jacob, might be accepting of magical neighbors. It’s a strangely backwards message for a film that wants to be a progressive allegory, and one can only hope that the MACUSA gets comeuppance in the four (!) planned sequels.