Considering that context, it is interesting that the finale of the film revolves around a no-platform debate. No-platforming is when people object to a prestigious speaking opportunity being extended to those who hold extreme or prejudicial views, out of a fear that it will legitimize them. Most recently, the Oxford Union and The Economist were criticized for hosting Steve Bannon, the brains behind Breitbart News and the Trump campaign. To its critics no-platforming is an assault on freedom of speech; to its proponents it is a defence against hate speech.
At the film’s climax, Grindelwald is set to hold a rally in Paris. His penchant for rallies, along with his blond hair, paralleling a certain real-life political figure. A conflict brews amongst our heroes over the extent to which they should intervene. Higher-ups in the British Ministry of Magic insist that it should be forcefully broken up, whereas Dumbledore suggests that such actions would only play into Grindelwald’s hands.
Much of the subsequent tension derives from Aurors being secretly present at the rally, under strict instructions from Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus not to engage, even and especially when Grindelwald highlights their presence for the crowd’s attention. A member of the audience scares an Auror into action, resulting in Grindelwald telling his followers to go and spread the message that it is not him who is violent. Once they have all dispersed, Grindelwald reveals his true agenda, and the film’s action-packed final set piece begins.
Considering the aforementioned controversy surrounding the casting of Johnny Depp, it is doubly ironic that the film should conclude around a debate over the extent to which his character should be allowed to address an audience. An uncharitable reading would be that J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers are defending their tone-deaf decision to keep him by doubling down, and willfully criticizing the no-platform movement. After all, the calls to remove him are a variant of the no-platform argument. However, that is not something that is fair when looking at either the real or wizarding world.
Firstly, while Ridley Scott showed how quickly changes could be made when he took Kevin Spacey out of All The Money In The World, the script for this film would have been written long before the filmmakers were forced into a public defence of Johnny Depp. Therefore, the sequence cannot be seen as a direct response to, or comment on, that movement. Meanwhile, it is not the attempts to no-platform Grindelwald that the film suggests are responsible for his allure.
That being said, is it trying to say anything about no-platforming itself? While J.K. Rowling is very politically engaged, particularly on Twitter, the film’s echoing of the no-platforming debate appears to be just that, an echo. It follows a trend in franchise fantasy film-making to evoke real-world events, or arguments, in order to ground them with a semblance of thematic depth, without ever explicitly nailing their colours to the mast one way or the other. Simply put, it is unlikely that a film too scared to fully explore Dumbledore’s sexuality, would risk alienating other members of the audience by wading into one of the biggest cultural and political debates of the moment.
Nevertheless, Fantastic Beasts is about repression. After all, what is the Obscurus, if not a visualization of the dangers of hiding what you really are? Meanwhile, the film is littered, cluttered even, with triangles and squares of unrequited or denied love. Repression is a key part of what makes Grindelwald who he is, but it is the desire to repress those who he sees as unworthy, something with which the film doesn’t sympathize or try to justify. Although, in another instance of the sometimes crass way in which films of this nature co-opt real-life events, Grindelwald uses the specter of an approaching World War Two to argue for the supremacy of witches and wizards, a moment that subverts our desire as an audience to escape to the wizarding world, and some people’s preference to it over our own.
Ultimately, while Dumbledore and co. may deplore the Ministry’s heavy-handedness; they do still recognize Grindelwald as an existential threat who must be defeated. Indeed, the film finishes with Dumbledore resolving to literally destroy his bonds with Grindelwald so that he can fight and defeat him, a conflict that we know is coming and around which this prequel series will presumably conclude.
What the debates surrounding this film, both on and off-screen, show is how the no-platform debate is starting to make its presence felt at the cinema. Hot on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody and First Man, Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald represents a growing tendency for films to be judged by what’s not on screen as opposed to what is. Both Bohemian Rhapsody and Fantastic Beasts have been criticized for shying away from the sexuality of their leading men, whilst First Man was attacked for insufficient patriotism by not showing the planting of the American flag. Films are some of the biggest platforms in the world. Who, or what, they show and how has immense influence. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a variant of the no-platform debate would reach them. How it continues to impact our reaction to films and their plots will be a fascinating development to watch in the years to come.
By Movie Parliament Prime Minister,