In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an Exciting Return to the Wizarding World

Since the night of November 8, I’ve needed joy. Tonight, I found it, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s new addition to the Wizarding World.

Based off a Hogwarts textbook, which Rowling wrote in 2001 to raise money for charity, the film Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting. She delivers a smart, funny, exciting movie, directed well by David Yates, with a plot full of promise for fans of the books.

After a brief, confusing first scene, the weakest part of the movie, we meet our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist and the author of the aforementioned Hogwarts textbook. Scamander disembarks a ship in 1926 New York, holding a briefcase full of magical creatures. From here on, the movie takes flight.

New York City is bustling and dark, and looks almost surprised when magic disrupts it. More bewitching, appropriately, is the world inside Scamander’s briefcase, with pockets of different habitats conjured to suit his beloved beasts. Richly colored and animated, innovative and entrancing, this world is as gorgeous as the creatures it shelters. Every beast, from the tiny, dependent Bowtruckle to the magnificent Thunderbird, is stunning — and more than a few could eat Donald Trump, a fun thought.

Of course, such wondrous creatures can’t be contained in a mere briefcase. Some of the beasts escape, which provides the main thrust of the movie. Along the way, Scamander meets Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ex-Auror for MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States; her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Legilimens, otherwise known as a witch who can read minds; and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj, the American word for a Muggle.

These four become a lovable quartet, cementing what I’ve found most distinctive about Rowling’s storytelling: her ability to craft characters so human, so real, I care about them as much as I do living people. The actors’ sterling performances help in this endeavor, led by Redmayne’s lithe, awkward, earnest Scamander, a hero all the more endearing for being a bit odd. Waterston plays Tina, who starts out wary of Newt but warms to him, as driven, brave and kind; she and Newt have promising potential. Sudol’s Queenie, meanwhile, is warm from the outset, beautiful and giggly, as charming as she is bright. Fogler rounds out the four with sharp comic timing as Kowalski, and is winningly astonished by most magic. Viewers can relate.

We meet less charming characters as well. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads the Second Salemers, who want to expose and exterminate witchcraft in the United States. She approaches Henry Shaw, Sr. (Jon Voight), a newspaper magnate, and his sons, prohibitionist senator Henry Junior (Josh Cowdery) and Langdon (Ronan Raftery), hoping to convince them that magic exists, too. Among Barebone’s adopted children is Credence (Ezra Miller), a trembling, rigid, shell of a person, one of the mysteries the film explores. Colin Farrell rounds out the count, playing the shrewd, powerful Percival Graves, the head of MACUSA’s Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

You may have noticed a theme among the main actors so far: they’re all white. The lone exception is Carmen Ejogo, who plays MACUSA president Serafina Picquery. I’m disappointed Rowling did so little to diversify her characters, particularly after the Potter novels’ criticism on that front. Still, I have hope: the end of the movie leaves room for new characters, who may be people of color. So, too, does it seem likely that sequels will include characters of different sexualities. In addition, Tina and Queenie’s last name suggests they are Jewish. If so, they are the second and third explicitly Jewish characters in the Wizarding World, and the first Jewish protagonists. (If they aren’t, I will personally throw a riot, because I have waited 14 years for this.)

Besides the film’s diversity oversight, however, it shows a keen awareness of modern political issues. Themes of xenophobia, authoritarianism and extremism course through the movie, setting the tone for conflicts to come.

I’m crossing my fingers, though, that even with those conflicts, the sequels maintain Fantastic Beasts’ delicate balance. It is warm and dark, witty and action-packed, engaging for the eyes and the mind in equal measure. Fantastic Beasts provided a potent antidote to my post-election sorrow, and is a welcome extension of my favorite world. 

And its twist at the end, like the movie itself, is typical Rowling brilliance.


After the Apocalypse

I’ve never been afraid to be a Jew in America before.

Tonight isn’t the first time I’ve felt these fears during Donald Trump’s campaign. I’ve felt them ever since Trump told the Republican Jewish Congress they wouldn’t vote for him “because I don’t want your money.” I’ve felt them ever since he and his sons started retweeting posts and images from anti-Jew white supremacists. My fear has intensified, steadily, since Trump retweeted an image of a Star of David emblazoned over money, and reached a peak when Trump used his last campaign ad to decry “a global power structure” represented solely by Jews.

At least, I thought it was a peak. But I was wrong. Tonight, after it became clear Donald J. Trump would become the next President of the United States, I sat in my room and cried for more minutes than I can count. For the first time, I am truly afraid to live in my country.

I haven’t talked about these fears during this election cycle because, of all minority groups, I have the least to fear — and that’s saying something. My terror shouldn’t take away from the sheer dystopia facing all people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, low-income people with government health care, sexual violence survivors, millions upon millions upon millions of people in our country who aren’t safe here anymore. I don’t expect government policy to adopt anti-Semitism, although I write that with some hesitation. But Trump has enabled anti-Semites, brought their bigotry back into the mainstream, and created a space for hating Jews that our country has not seen since World War II.

Again: I’m lucky. I’m white. I’m upper middle-class. But I am terrified for my friends, for my family, for the Jewish children I hope to bear one day. I’ve always known I would be an overprotective mother, that I would find plenty to worry about for my children: bullies, tough schoolwork, heartache. Never before have I worried that my children might be called kikes. Never before have I had reason to fear for their wellbeing because of their ethnicity and religion. Never before have I felt my family would be unsafe not just while living in America, but because we live in America.

I’ve always said with pride before that I look Jewish, and that my dad does, too. I’ve loved that with one look, maybe two, people can recognize the identity I love so deeply. Now I’m terrified. I’m terrified that with one look, a stranger will decide I am less than human. I’m terrified that they will decide the same about other people I love, too.

To my friends of color: I don’t know how you’ve made it this long, with this much fear. I’m so sorry for any way I’ve contributed to that. To however small an extent, I know your fear now. I don’t know if I have your strength to bear it.

All my life, Jewish elders have told me anti-Semitism is a cycle. You don’t know what it’s like, they said, but it’ll come back. It always does. I shrugged it off.

They were right.

I don’t want the Trump voters reading this to unfriend me or distance themselves from me personally. That’s not our way forward as a nation. But I want you to know that you have plunged my life and the lives of millions of others into uncertainty and horror. I want you to know that when — not if — someone calls me a yid, you are to blame. I want you to know that you have wrenched America away from all its claims to democracy and equality. And if you are a Jew, and you voted for a man who exploited anti-Semitism in order to gain votes, you should hang your head in shame. I pray for you, because you need it.

For that matter, we all do.