Johnny Depp’s Entry Into The World Of Harry Potter Is A Disgrace
By Claudia Morales
The wizarding world’s newest spinoff will co-star a high-profile alleged domestic abuser.
The Harry Potter series spent its original seven books and eight movies spinning a world-changing tale of good’s triumph over evil, becoming one of the most culturally significant and morally formative works of our time. Within that, it taught us to recognize and reject abuse, providing us with the unambiguous understanding that how characters like the Dursleys, Severus Snape, and Dolores Umbridge treated people was wrong.
Now, the wizarding world’s newest spinoff will co-star a high-profile alleged domestic abuser.
In what professional fan Melissa Anelli speculates was a studio-sanctioned leak, the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Johnny Depp will join the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them cast. He’ll make a brief appearance in the first film, which debuts November 18, and take on prominence in the five-part series’ future installments.
Glib and cheerful, the Hollywood Reporter article declares that “the world of witchcraft and wizardry seems like a perfect fit for the actor who is known for such fantastical cinematic roles as Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow.” There is no mention that, back in May, actress Amber Heard disclosed the physical and emotional abuse she suffered while married to Depp.
So goes the too-familiar cycle: A man secures fame in his field; we learn the man has abused a woman, or many women; the man suffers no consequence, maybe even earns some sympathy; the man secures some new success; the man’s success is covered without even momentary mention of his victim. It’s deplorable, but predictable.
In this case, that predictable narrative is further complicated by the fact that there’s an unsettling disparity between the message of the Harry Potter series and the franchise’s decision. The series has shaped reader values and activism, and the story’s messages have often been applied to discussions on important issues. And largely, this has all been rooted in a powerful anti-oppression perspective; indeed, from the first page of the first book, the series dissects how the powerful abuse the vulnerable and how the vulnerable can correct those injustices.
When Hermione learns about house elves being exploited for unpaid labor in the school she calls home, she launches the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) to fight back — she makes plenty of mistakes in the process, but tries to right a wrong she cannot abide by. When Umbridge intervenes in Hogwarts administration, furthering Minister of Magic’s Cornelius Fudge’s dangerous campaign of silence around Voldemort’s return and denying students the opportunity to learn meaningful Defense Against the Dark Arts material at a crucial time, students organize Dumbledore’s Army, an underground resistance effort to help each other learn spells they later use in the war.
This spirit of fighting against oppression mirrors J.K. Rowling’s real-world presence, which makes Depp’s casting more disappointing still. Melissa Anelli notes that Harry Potter “is a series penned by a woman who is very outspoken on behalf of victims of domestic violence, and knows the importance of creating a culture where victims are believed and alleged perpetrators are not celebrated.” This has been most recently evident in Rowling’s tweets against Trump, including in regards to his abuse. As Time put it:
“In reference to the allegations of sexual assault against Trump, Rowling did not hold back, retweeting many tweets that were critical of Trump and adding her own comment on the reaction to the events.”
The Harry Potter canon used to reliably cut through darkness with light, providing not escapism, but a heart-first alternative to injustice. It was never perfect, but it was always grounded in a sturdy moral code. But lately, the franchise has been letting down fans who valued and trusted that code.
First, Rowling failed the Native people who are misrepresented in the emerging Fantastic Beasts folklore. And now, there’s this upsetting Depp casting decision.
The decision to hire Depp comes as an affront to abuse survivors, a victory for abusers, and a validation for abuse apologists. It cements his continued success, pushes his wrongdoings further into the background, and paves the way for a legacy that makes no mention of his victim.
This is the audience participation segment of the high-profile abuse cycle, where an informal committee brainstorms excuses and gray areas and miles of wiggle room. This is the cue for rehearsed lines like “I choose to separate art from the artist” and “I don’t agree with everything my favorite artists do.”
Make no mistake: To call Depp’s violence against another human being something you simply disagree with is a privilege. To sit in a movie theater and see an abuser’s face projected onto the big screen without the goriest details of their violence or of your own traumas lodging themselves right in your gut is to enjoy an ignorance survivors can never regain. Informed silence is, in effect, endorsement.
Even those who insist on championing the possibility that Depp is innocent — those who cling to “allegation” like a lifeline instead of the formality it is — must admit that the Harry Potter franchise has, without exaggeration, the entire world at its fingertips. Casting directors could have hired any of the countless actors who have never drawn so much as a whisper of an allegation.
It might not be too late.
Melissa Anelli reasons that “if [Depp] is playing Grindelwald (as reported by Hypable), this means he’s got a multi-movie contract (as it’s also very likely that Grindelwald is THE villain of the upcoming five films) that is likely pretty close to airtight, and probably was signed before any of the allegations surfaced.” She goes on to note that, especially considering Rowling’s history speaking out on behalf of domestic violence victims, there might be hope for a casting change. “The Harry Potter franchise always seems to do the right thing in the end,” she says. “I’m hoping for the same here.”
There’s also opportunity for action within the fandom, which has a long history of dissent.
Fans are the story’s keepers even — and especially — when the story falls short. Fan art, fan discussion, and other fan projects (like Black Girls Create’s Hogwarts Black Student Union) carve out the racial representation the canon lacks. Fanfiction centers queer characters in complex stories by the thousands, while the canon just queerbaits.
And this dissent isn’t necessarily directed toward the canon itself; sometimes, it involves a canon-informed response to real-world evil.
When the fan community surrounding Harry Potter learned there were rapists and abusers among the community’s leaders, it ousted the perpetrators and got to work on rigorous reform.
When the Harry Potter Alliance learned that Warner Bros. was making Harry Potter-branded chocolate frogs sourced from child slavery, it led the community in fighting back, earning J.K. Rowling’s support, and finally succeeding.
The wizard rock music movement, spanning hundreds of bands, is full of songs that connect the books’ plots and themes with real world issues. Draco and the Malfoys’ song “BS” sees the band’s titular character grappling with and rejecting his family’s racism. Tonks and the Aurors’ “Yes All Witches” rallies the fandom to become feminists — “Hundreds of years of systematic oppression is gonna bring about a little bit of aggression.” During the George W. Bush administration, Harry and the Potters put “Cornelius Fudge is an Ass” — which indicts oppressive, incompetent leaders and those who support them — on their setlists all the time as commentary. They’ve brought it back for this election cycle: At LeakyCon this October, they closed out a rousing rendition of the song with an emphatic “Fuck Donald Trump!”
Of course, Trump lends even more sting to Depp’s casting. As a rapist, sexual assaulter, abuser, and all-of-the-above apologist aims for the White House with an unsettling amount of support behind him, continued, conscious, consistent dissent is the only option.
Such dissent is among the best proof of concept for J.K. Rowling’s most meaningful success: Fans use their love for these stories not as reasoning to explain away its wrongs, but as reason to demand better. Harry Potter is about the power of love, and to love something is to know when to challenge it. It is to know that challenging it will only strengthen it. In the words of wizard rock project Seen and Unforeseen, “it is a thing worth fighting for.”
It is difficult, yes, to grapple with our sources of light also creating darkness. It is difficult to reconcile an actor so present across stories we’ve loved for so long with his actions, and to be honest about what moving forward entails. But Harry Potter taught us that we must choose between what is right and what is easy.
Here, then, is how we fight: As Harry and his friends did, and as we have done before, we use our voice. We demand better. We speak truth to power. We call on what we love to match what it taught us.