JK Rowling just confirmed the character’s origins story. But some fans aren’t happy.
Barely 30 seconds into the brand new trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald a massive bombshell is dropped.
“Nagini,” Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) whispers in awe as he watches a circus performer called Nagini (Claudia Kim) arch her back to transform into a snake. The same snake, as well all know, that will eventually become Voldemort’s most beloved companion and sacred horcrux from the original Harry Potter series who was slayed in spectacular fashion by Neville Longbottom in the Battle of Hogwarts. (Is that spoiler? We all know how Harry Potter ends, right?)
Over the years many had speculated on Nagini’s origins, some even suggesting that the python that Harry sets free from the zoo in the opening chapter of the first book and Nagini are one and the same snake.
But this little snippet of trailer footage, plus a mysterious missive from JK Rowling’s Twitter account, confirms that not only are the two snakes different, but that Voldemort’s soon-to-be horcrux was once a woman.
This is Nagini as we have never seen her before, and Rowling promises that The Crimes of Grindelwald will explore her backstory in great detail.
Actress Kim confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that not only was Nagini originally a woman, but that she was a Maledictus too. Like Animagus, Maledictus are wizards and witches who can take on animal forms. But unlike Animagus, Maledictus don’t have as much control over this process. Eventually they will lose the power to switch between human and animal being, trapped in their animal form forever. She’s not a wizard per se – she doesn’t have a wand, Kim told Entertainment Weekly - but she does have uncharted magical powers that will be revealed in the film.
Maledictus are always women and, according to Rowling, are made through a blood curse passed down from mothers to daughters. Though “they aren’t destined to be evil,” Rowling tweeted, “the slow transformation into a beast is beyond their control.”
For Kim, that meant playing up the terrifying inevitability of her predicament. “She does feel sometimes it’s not controllable,” Kim told Entertainment Weekly. “She is bound to transform at some point to a beast so she feels this pressure that the clock is ticking.”
“It will be so interesting to see another side of Nagini,” she added. “You’ve only seen her as a Horcrux. In this, she’s a wonderful and vulnerable woman who wants to live. She wants to stay a human being and I think that’s a wonderful contrast to the character.”
It is undeniably exciting that, more than 20 years after we cracked open the spines on the first Harry Potter book, we are still learning more about this wide, wonderful wizarding world.
But there is a big problem with Nagini and the way this character has been brought to life onscreen.
When Nagini takes on her permanent snake form she is essentially enslaved by Voldemort and, depending on which way you look at her character and motives, is either forced or willingly aids him as he imposes a fascist, totalitarian regime that leads to the death of countless wizards, witches and muggles.
The fact that she is originally a woman of colour, and one of the only major characters in the franchise to be a person of colour – not to mention the cultural stereotype of deceitful, cunning Asian ‘dragon ladies’ – is seriously problematic.
Several commentators, many of them Asian women, have pointed out how unsettling it is that Nagini, a character kept as a pet by Voldemort, is actually an enslaved Asian woman. It reinforces all kinds of racist stereotypes about submissive Asian women dominated by white men. What’s more, some have questioned why a Korean actress is playing a character called Nagini when her name has Sanskrit and South Asian origins.
“The problem isn’t that WOC is playing Nagini,” one fan tweeted. “The problem [is] there aren’t any positive people of color in the wizarding world with main roles. It makes no sense to have an all white cast and then have the villainous snake be Asian”.
It’s also not the first scandal to haunt this franchise. This is a movie, after all, that cast a man accused by his ex-wife of domestic violence to play the lead role, a decision defended by both Rowling and the film’s director David Yates at the time.
Not everyone shares the concerns about the character of Nagini. Several fans have tweeted that they are excited to learn more about Nagini’s backstory and that they don’t care about her race or gender. (Warner Bros and Kim have not commented on the criticism.)
Now, JK Rowling has responded to the criticism on Twitter, writing that Nagini is a Naga, which are “snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology”, adding that “Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including “Javanese, Chinese and Betawi”.
She also wrote that she had been holding onto the secret that Nagini was a “maledictus” – a human who had turned into an animal due to a blood curse – for 20 years.
It is genuinely thrilling to be told that soon we will know more about Nagini and how she came to be who she came to be.
What’s not thrilling is to find out that this franchise, this series that so many people adore that contained Cho Chang, one of the only representations of an Asian woman that I had ever read in a popular book and that made me, an Asian woman, feel so seen as a teenager, is now giving its first major role to a woman of colour, and that role is as the enslaved pet of a deranged, dangerous white man.
I don’t want to take away from the excitement Kim must feel at starring as this iconic character in The Crimes of Grindelwald, nor how great it is that the Harry Potter franchise is finally spotlighting people of colour, casting both Kim and Zoe Kravitz in the new movie. (Kravitz plays Leta Lestrange so, yeah, I guess it’s another instance of a person of colour playing the bad guy. Cool.)
But this feels like a few steps forward, one giant leap back.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will be released in cinemas on November 18.