You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture.
This post contains mild spoilers.
In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” you will find a lot of fantastic beasts. These outlawed creatures scurry to and fro, stealing shiny things, rampaging through New York and invoking an “aw, shucks” charm.
Like the rest of the “Harry Potter” franchise, which was always about death and the trials of uninvited heroism, the subtext buried in this prequel stretches far beyond its easy charisma. “Fantastic Beasts” is not really a movie about fantastic beasts at all. It’s a parable about persecution. Following the election of Donald Trump, a documented xenophobe who built his campaign on discriminatory rhetoric, that’s never been a timelier theme.
Set in 1926, “Fantastic Beasts” opens with British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving at New York City customs carrying a suitcase of concealed critters. Unlike their British counterparts who remain largely oblivious to spells and potions, American Muggles ― called No-Majs ― have waged war against their wand-waving neighbors. It’s the Salem Witch Trials all over again. Crowds assemble to rally against wizards, inciting unrest and paranoia within both communities. If you’re not like us, you’re against us, these vicious activists say. No wonder the “Harry Potter” characters worked so hard to camouflage their powers ― history taught them what happens if they don’t.
This evangelical persecution manifests most strongly in Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a self-righteous zealot who steals children from the magical families she exposes and raises them as her puppets. Credence (Ezra Miller) is the most troubled member of her clan. Caught between a self-loathing that urges him to bury his true nature and an overwhelming desire to figure out what it means to be magical, Credence finds a mentor in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), an imperious Auror who manipulates Credence into doing his oppressive bidding.
The queer subtext is glaring. Like so many confused teenagers (and adults), Credence longs for someone to whom he can explain these unfamiliarities. Are his impulses indecent? Is there any hope for redemption? To draw a familiar comparison in an America that just elected a vice president with a deplorable track record on LGBTQ rights, can he, ahem, pray the magic away? Credence clings to Percival, literally ― the older wizard meets him in dark alleyways, where he grabs Credence’s face tenderly enough to seem alluring, but forcefully enough to impart fear. “We live in the shadows for too long,” Percival hisses. There’s a repression lurking in Percival, as well, or perhaps a predation. Whatever it is, he sees Credence as a plaything.
Making the persecution more pronounced, “Fantastic Beasts” introduces the Obscurus, a dark cloud that forms inside the soul of anyone who represses his or her magic. Credence is plagued by a pretty strong Obscurus. In theory, he can unleash or restrain it at his will. But repression breeds irrationality. Without a full sense of your identity, it’s hard to police your own responses. You hardly even know what’s right or wrong. Credence later realizes Percival was using him to fulfill a supposed prophecy. When Credence doesn’t produce results, Percival casts him aside, making him feel more worthless than he already did. Credence loses control of his Obscurus, unleashing havoc upon his surroundings. He is, after all, a teenager with an under-formed sense of the world, and it’s the only way people will pay him proper attention ― at least until Newt, our sheepish hero, helps to calm his nerves.
In keeping, Credence’s mother becomes one of the movie’s key villains ― and that’s saying something, considering the supreme dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose. Mary Lou’s panic about the unfamiliar wizarding society turns into puritanical vengeance. It’s almost too easy to make Trumpian parallels regarding fear of the Other (see also, for example: racism and Islamaphobia), especially considering J.K. Rowling conceived the story well before the presidential election began. But the parallels are not a stretch: At a press conference in New York last week, Rowling said “Beasts” is “partly informed by a rise in populism around the world” ― arguably the same populism that elected Trump and Pence.
This is, hopefully, only the first hint at a queer undercurrent within the five-part “Fantastic Beasts” franchise. The possibility that the subtext will soon become text seems likely. Rowling won’t confirm whether we’ll see Dumbledore as openly gay, but she did say the sequel will chronicle his troubled “formative” years.
Cinema need not be activism, but imagine the impact of surveying the honest sexuality of such a beloved hero. Blockbusters don’t allot space for candidly queer characters, but if they did, maybe one day there won’t be a need for narratives about repression yielding violence. (Until fairly recently, movies punished queers or portrayed them as deranged. Progress!) Alas, such persecution is all too relatable, as are the responses from adults around Credence, including the president (Carmen Ejogo) of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who views his Obscurus as a threat.
Discerning young viewers may pick up on these notes while watching “Fantastic Beasts,” just as some young readers processed the gravity of the “Harry Potter” books. At the risk of over-politicizing a children’s film, there has never been a more vital moment to see a tale about social oppression than now, when President-elect Trump and his supporters intimidate the stability of those who look different from them. Sure, dark wizards can present peril for Muggles and No-Majs, but most from the latter camp don’t even attempt to understand the sorcerers they mistreat. The movie even makes a case for inclusivity in Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the No-Maj factory worker who gets wrapped up in the enchanted events and realizes he doesn’t want his memory wiped out after everything is over. Life is better when you know the wonders that others produce. “Aww, I wanna be a wizard,” he says. Shouldn’t we all?
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” opens in theaters on Nov. 16.
Follow Matt Jacobs on Twitter: @tarantallegra