Gellert Grindelwald should be timely. A fascist demagogue exploiting people’s fears and prejudices to gain power should resonate strongly in the year of President Trump, and this is what JK Rowling set out to do with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. But she flounders at almost every turn by accidentally presenting him in a flattering light.
Grindelwald spends almost all of the first Fantastic Beasts disguised as an Auror charged with protecting the American Wizarding community. Throughout he is openly resentful of their obsessive secrecy, and at the end gives an impassioned speech decrying them for preferring to murder their own people than risk having to interact with muggles. It is by far the most sense anyone makes in the entire film.
In fact it’s impossible to view Newt’s assistance in capturing him when he announces he won’t put up with this any longer as anything other than an act of cowardly complacence. The reveal afterwards that he’s actually wizard Hitler does nothing to dampen this, as we’ve only known him in disguise. Walking out of the movie I started looking online to see if anyone was selling “Grindelwald was right” t-shirts.
In the sequel it almost gets worse. In his grand climactic speech to his followers Grindelwald accurately predicts both World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima, and his desire to take over the world is framed as a genuine desire to protect wizards from mankind. The problem is that this makes far too much sense.
Presenting Grindelwald as Hitler doesn’t work because in his struggle Grindelwald is undoubtedly the underdog. As he points out, muggles will soon have the ability to destroy and kill on an infinitely greater scale than any wizard ever could. The Wizarding world has always been framed as a small community, hiding from the world for their own protection. Every British wizard is educated at a single school. In the first film we even saw that wizards are genuinely persecuted, so Grindelwald isn’t wrong when he says they could soon be hunted and destroyed en masse.
Real-life fascists tell people the same thing, but from a completely different place. Hitler was a straight white man in the country where straight white men had the most power in society. The people he insisted would destroy Germany – Jews, Communists, gay people – were no threat to it and his scapegoating of them was an excuse to gain power. But presenting Grindelwald as someone driven by real-life injustices makes his desire to conquer the world of muggles well-intentioned and sympathetic.
All fascists have a common mindset behind them, which George Orwell summed up in his review of Mein Kampf:
He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.
Gellert Grindelwald is how fascists see themselves. They believe they are exceptional men in the deeply unjust world, who could not look by as the weak and parasitic of a great society allowed themselves to be destroyed. But in reality this is a lie.
Fantastic Beasts 2 is a great example of the main weakness of popular fiction about bigotry and totalitarianism, which is that the people who make it are almost never the people who experience it in real life. JK Rowling would not be in danger if fascists took over the UK. Because she has never had to face these issues in real life she has no experience of them, and so is only able to try to understand them by thinking about them logically. This is a major problem with a lot of socially minded media today.
American History X is a great example of this. It tells the story of Derek, a neo-Nazi who renounces racism after going to prison for murdering several black men. Early on the film presents Derek’s backstory as being that he turned to white nationalism after his dad was murdered by black drug dealers. Like Fantastic Beasts, the film tries to discover a logical reason for people turning to fascism and fails for the same reasons. Explaining Derek’s actions as the result of circumstances outside his control makes them out to be sympathetic, even reasonable. Of course he became a murderous Nazi, he wanted revenge for his dad, like some sort of racist Batman.
The Netflix film Bright was even worse. A fantasy racism allegory set in an alternate modern day Los Angeles, this movie explains racism as being the fault of its victims. The reason given for everyone looking down on orcs is that thousands of years ago they sided with a Dark Lord against everyone else, and the bigotry they experience today is a consequence of that.
The truth is that there is no logical reason behind racism. It’s an entirely emotional thing based in long-standing cultural narratives, which usually started as retroactive justifications for economic exploitation. White British people are prejudiced against Indians because their ancestors told themselves they were inherently uncivilised, to justify expanding the British Empire. White Americans fear black men because after slavery ended they used the idea of predatory black men as an excuse to arrest as many as possible and set them to work as convict labour. Today these prejudices continue both out of tradition and because they are an effective way to convince masses of people to act against all reason.
Hollywood is obsessed with the idea of being the vanguard against Trump. Every socially minded populist film since his election has been sold as “the movie we need”, and every Oscar season becomes an extended back-patting ceremony about how they are helping to end bigotry forever. But whatever role art can play in resistance against rising fascist movements it can only do by accurately reflecting reality. When you do see this kind of art the difference between it and films like Fantastic Beasts is night and day. It’s the difference between Driving Miss Daisy and Malcolm X, or between Dallas Buyers Club and Sense8. If Hollywood wants to have any effect on the world beyond self flattery they need to realise this and start getting people who aren’t rich, white and sheltered to make their films.