The “Harry Potter” series deals directly with the dangers of prejudice and racism, so it was fitting to be confronted with those issues during a screening of the latest “Potter” movie.
During the late 1990s, I worked on assignment in San Jose, Calif. During that era, I was long-distance romancing my eventual wife, Shannon, who lived in Ann Arbor. Part of bridging that continental gap was spending a lot of late nights on the phone.
Shannon battled mild insomnia in those days, and I battled cross-country home sickness. One of our solutions was for me to read to her each night until she was ready to sleep. It was on her suggestion in that summer of 1999 that I purchased a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
It was a natural extension of our admiration for the book series to see the “Potter” movies as each one was released.
Taking the adventure to its extreme, we arranged a safe haven for our young boys and drove to the Rave Motion Pictures theater at Levis Commons for the July 15 midnight premiere. Traveling with friends who have been equally invested in the series, we arrived to find all 12 screens showing the film, and all 12 screens sold out or close to it. Hundreds of fans filled the lobby, chattering excitedly and bustling with anticipation. Many fans (who at one point probably smirked at fans who lined up in costumes for “Star Wars” movies) were dressed as their favorite character.
There were great bearded Hagrids, scores of Harrys wearing black robes and black circular glasses, and several silver-bearded Dumbledores. The creativity on display was impressive. One fan, dressed as Azkaban prisoner Sirius Black, wore the faded jail fatigues and had the full set of markings “tattooed” on his chest. I assume those quotes are required. There were sexy and demented Bellatrix clones, scary and silent Death Eaters and Dementors and at least one person dressed as a winged Golden Snitch.
With about 30 minutes before showtime, two of us walked to the concession stand. Waiting in the lengthy line gave us another opportunity to admire the “Potter” fans who had invested time and energy into dressing up to mark the end of the 10-year film series. It was exciting and fun, a moment free of real-world politics and pressures.
Then a young man walked by, dressed in Hogwarts wizard robes. He was tall, with brown hair and a quick gait.
His white face was smeared black.
I openly stared as he crossed the lobby, stunned to see someone, even in the context of a celebration and costume ball, wearing blackface. I caught the eye of my friend, who was similarly caught off guard by the sight.
It surprised me — stunned me, really — that anyone in 2011 could walk around in public in blackface and think it’s OK. We’re not talking about some satirical or political fourth wall-breaking performance art. It was just one kid at the movies, dressed in costume with some kind of black makeup or paint smeared over his face.
Blackface has a long history as a tool for demeaning and humiliating black people; I do not see any excuses that transcend that context.
There are not a lot of black characters in the “Harry Potter” books and movies, which seems endemic to epic fantasy stories. The “Star Wars” movies employed exactly one prominent black actor for each of its trilogies (Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in the Original Trilogy, Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Mace Windu in the Prequel Trilogy). The “Lord of the Rings” movies make the “Star Wars” movies look like a Tyler Perry project. “Avatar,” employed black actors for its aliens but not for its scientists or military leaders.
“Potter” has Lee Jordan, who fights alongside the good-guy wizards, and Dean Thomas, who is more visible than Jordan but mainly footnotes himself as a boyfriend of Ginny Weasley, who eventually falls for Harry Potter. It has Kingsley Shacklebolt, a powerful wizard who rises to a prominent leadership role. There is one young black woman, Angelina Johnson, who dates the supporting character Fred Weasley (and according to fan websites, marries his brother George after Fred dies in battle. This skin-color exposition on the Weasley family’s prejudice-free approach to life is a rare bit of narrative clumsiness on Rowling’s part).
The young man in blackface must have been dressed as Dean Thomas, as he lacked Lee Jordan’s dreadlocks and Angelina Johnson’s uterus (my assumption).
While seeing him did not completely sour my evening, his offensive and tasteless choice has resonated. Worst-case scenario, it was an excuse for a mocking, racist act of immaturity. At best, it was an insensitive display of ignorance and immaturity. Or maybe he was just a historical re-enactor.
I wonder if he left his parents’ home with the blackface on, or if he applied it when safely out of his parents’ sight. I also wonder if he would have employed the same mischievous strut at another theater; not just the mostly white safe zone in Perrysburg, but maybe at Westfield, where he would have been far more likely to face real-life black people.
If he had been seen in blackface at Westfield, it would have taken a lot more than magic words and phrases to prevent him from learning just how offensive his actions were.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: Angelina Johnson, Avatar, Billy Dee Williams, blackface, Dean Thomas, Fred Weasley, Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lando Calrissian, Lee Jordan, Levis Commons, Lighting The Fuse, Lord of the Rings, Michael S. Miller, racism, Rave Motion Pictures, Star Wars, Westfield