Opinion: What to Do When a Villain Steps Out of the Screen

When I was 12 years old, I said I would stick with Harry Potter until the very end (and if you understand that reference, chances are that you did too). These days, I find myself questioning this commitment.  

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second installment of a Harry Potter spin-off series set in the 1920s wizarding world of New York. The film has come under fire for more than a few reasons, but perhaps the most disturbing part is not the actions of Gellert Grindelwald (a dark wizard who serves as the fascist antagonist of the series), but the real-life violence of the actor behind him: Johnny Depp.

In May 2016, actress Amber Heard filed for divorce from Depp, alleging that he was “verbally and physically abusive” throughout their one-year marriage. She said she was frightened of his violent outbursts and feared for her safety. Depp’s lawyers, meanwhile, claimed that Heard was simply trying to get more money out of the divorce. The separation was settled out of court in August 2016 and Heard donated all of her court proceedings to charity. Since then, Depp has repeatedly denied the allegations of abuse.

Following the reveal of Depp’s casting in the Fantastic Beasts series through a cameo appearance in the first film, many fans were frustrated and upset. Naturally, they turned to the voice of authority: J.K. Rowling, the author of the original Harry Potter book series and its subsequent extensions, who often gives the final word on the wizarding world. In a blog post, Rowling acknowledged the controversy and said that she and director David Yates had considered recasting Depp’s role. However, based on their “understanding of the circumstances,” they were “not only comfortable sticking with [their] original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”

For someone who has never had an issue being publicly political (using her Twitter to comment on anything from President Trump to the Brexit deal), Rowling gave a vague answer that strategically avoided explaining why she continues to support Depp. Although it’s clear that Rowling had the power to recast, any evidence that informed the decision conveniently cannot be revealed, supposedly out of respect for the terms of Depp and Heard’s divorce. They agreed not to discuss their separation in interviews or social media, although Depp doesn’t seem to have an issue asserting his innocence to anyone who’ll listen. Rowling said that the “inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult, frustrating and at times painful,” but she failed to take the opportunity to use her platform in a meaningful way and speak about the culture of abuse, or victim-blaming, or #MeToo.

For some fans, Rowling’s stamp of approval on the movie was enough to justify seeing it. But does the conversation have to end when Rowling refuses to speak? Absolutely not. In the same way that Hogwarts students formed Dumbledore’s Army to resist an oppressive educational reform, it’s time that fans of the series take action against its creator.

The obvious endeavour was to boycott the film and it seems to have made a financial impact. The Crimes of Grindelwald had the worst opening in the history of Harry Potter movies, making US$62 million—17 percent less than the US$74.4 million opening of the first installment. Although there were other reasons not to see the movie, this isn’t the first Depp film to flop post-accusation: Alice Through the Looking Glass, which was released in the midst of his divorce, only opened to US$34 million, compared to US$116 million for the first movie, Alice in Wonderland.

Even if you’ve already seen the movie, however, there’s still ways to take action. On social media, you can use the hashtag #NoMagicInAbuse—a campaign run by Uplift, a group that addresses sexual violence in the online community. The campaign seeks to unite the fandom in opposing Depp’s casting and showing solidarity with survivors by leading a conversation around abuse and encouraging people to “think critically about the media [we] consume.”  

“The creators of the stories we hold so dear have let us down, but the Harry Potter community has always been defined by more than what Warner Bros. or J.K. Rowling have provided us,” the organization wrote on their website. “The fandom belongs to us.”

Uplift also tweeted a list of alternatives to boycotting for fans who still want to see the film. They suggested talking to your friends and family about sexual violence and how it impacts our personal lives, donating the cost of your ticket to an organization supporting survivors, or volunteering your time with them.

For long-time fan Reilly Knowles, it made more sense to engage with the movie critically rather than boycott it. He’s still uncertain if seeing the movie was a “lukewarm political position,” but nonetheless, he refuses to be complacent in sweeping the controversy under the rug.

“I have a lot of really fond memories of Harry Potter and it's really important to me, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have to passively accept everything about the Harry Potter universe and its creator,” Knowles says. “I have found as an adult reader that the most meaningful ways I can interact with Harry Potter is sometimes to resist the things that the text and the movies are telling me.”

Although Depp’s presence in the film made him uncomfortable, Knowles recognizes the value in confronting the actor.  He feels that these days, confronting abusers is unavoidable—they exist in nearly every realm of our lives.

“Going to the movie and acknowledging what [Depp has] done and saying ‘I see you and I see what you've been accused of’; maybe that is more powerful than outright denying this person any attention,” Knowles says.

I understand wanting to see the film; for many people, returning to the wizarding world feels like going home. I also understand how difficult it can be when the stories or people who we once looked up to are proven to be problematic. But in the wake of #MeToo and the meaningful conversation we’re having around sexual violence, it’s important to recognize the danger of complacency in pervasive systems of power. Now more than ever, we should be critical of our idols and our relationships with them.

As the great wizard Albus Dumbledore would say, we must choose between what is easy and what is right.