Cries of racism erupt over the casting of Nagini in latest 'Fantastic Beasts' installment

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

The final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald contained a jaw-dropping character reveal that has some Harry Potter fans fuming. As it turns out, one of the prequel franchise’s “new” characters, played by Claudia Kim, is actually a familiar villain from the original series: Voldemort’s evil snake companion Nagini. Author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling tweeted that she’d been sitting on this secret “for around 20 years.” But social media skeptics say that Nagini’s shocking past as a Korean woman seems highly implausible and possibly racist.

Claudia Kim as Nagini as seen in  Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald trailer. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

A brief primer for Muggles with fuzzy memories: Nagini first appeared in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as Voldemort’s giant pet snake and de facto attack dog. In later films, we saw the snake attack Harry and kill Severus Snape; we also learned that she was a Horcrux, meaning a hiding place that contained a piece of Voldemort’s soul. Nagini was ultimately beheaded by underdog wizard Neville Longbottom.

Now, in the Fantastic Beasts revisionist version of the Potterverse, Nagini is a Maledictus: a human woman carrying a blood curse that transforms her into an animal. We see her in the trailer as a shape-shifting circus performer in the 1920s, played by South Korean actress Kim.

Fans are picking up on a few problems with this change. First, there’s the issue of representation: Nagini is only the second significant Asian character introduced in the Potterverse, and we know that her fate involves being the murdering pet reptile of a wizard who believes those without “pure blood” should not live. This plays into a couple of nasty stereotypes about Asian women often scene in Hollywood films: the sinister, exotic “dragon lady” and the submissive, voiceless sex object.

The fact that the novel portrayed Voldemort milking Nagini for her poison only makes it ickier.

Others are questioning the cultural and historical context of Nagini’s being Korean — in light of both prejudice against Asian-Americans in the ’20s and the fact that Nagini is a Sanskrit (read: Indian, not Korean) name.

Rowling did have a response to name-based critiques of the character’s ethnicity. (For another take, here’s a thread looking at the character from a Korean perspective.)

Others have defended the relationship of Voldemort and his snake as one of equals, not a master and pet (which — we never saw the snake ordering him around, but OK).

But then there’s the question of poor Neville Longbottom. Does this reveal ruin his snake-killing moment of triumph?

Then there are the fans who are just growing weary of big prequel reveals with zero foreshadowing.

Still others are simply trying to get over the shock of learning that Nagini is a person.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens in theaters on Nov. 16.

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