The Crimes of Grindelwald Do Not Include Straight-Washing

Warning: contains minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was among the most hotly anticipated films of 2018. With millions of Potter fans around the world, a return to Hogwarts – however brief – was welcomed by many. Yet it was also one of the most pre-emptively criticized films of the year.

In the run-up to release, there was much speculation about whether Albus Dumbledore – the only openly gay character in J. K. Rowling’s Potterverse – would have his sexuality acknowledged on screen. After all, the love between a youthful Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald determined who they became as men – men who defined the very course of wizarding history. This relationship made waves across decades, from before the beginning of Fantastic Beasts to the conclusion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

When director David Yates announced that Jude Law’s Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” gay in The Crimes of Gindelwald, there wwas an uproar among fans. Though the film and screenplay were not yet available, criticisms of straight-washing flew about faster than a Firebolt.

As a dyed in the wool Potter fan and proud lesbian, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I knew I’d be deeply disappointed if Dubledore’s gayness was erased. On the other, it was still a big if – the film hadn’t yet come out, so to speak, when Yates dropped this bombshell. And I knew there were three sequels yet to drop, in which Dumbledore’s sexuality might still be fleshed out even if it was missing in this one. On social media, things have a way of being warped and blown out of proportion until they’re whipped up into a controversy. So I decided to wait until seeing The Crimes of Grindelwald before making any judgements about how Dumbledore’s sexuality is represented in the story. Here’s what I think.

The Crimes of Grindelwald drew a subtle, moving portrait of Albus Dumbledore. We meet him as a deeply conflicted man who is trying to do the right thing. Dumbledore is not yet the self-assured headmaster offering sage advice. He has not yet won the respect of the wizarding community – in fact, his teaching position at Hogwarts is precarious, and the Ministry of Magic treat him with a level of suspicion that borders on hostility.

Jude Law’s Dumbledore is devoid of the elaborate robes and throwaway remarks about knitting patterns that shape his image in later years. At first I was dismayed by the total absence of camp that readers have come to associate with Dumbledore. But then I realised: this is not yet a man at ease in himself, or the world around him. There is little to suggest that a young Albus Dumbledore has the freedom to make flamboyant sartorial choices.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is set during the 1920s, at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal in Britain. Being gay wasn’t legalised until 1967, some forty years after the film was set. It’s not clear whether wizard law mirrored muggle legislature, but I find it hard to imagine that being gay would have have carried no stigma in such a context. Would Dumbledore have been allowed to follow his vocation and teach during the ‘20s while presenting himself in a way that’s clearly coded as gay? It seems unlikely.

David Yates was telling it straight – Dumbledore’s sexuality isn’t given explicit mention in The Crimes of Grindelwald. But it is very much present in the story. His past association with Grindelwald stands against him in the eyes of the Ministry, who are pressuring Dumbledore to stop his reign of terror. When one official describes them being “as close as brothers”, Dumbledore asserts that they were “closer.”

While he is vague about the nature of that relationship, Dumbledore shuts down efforts to cast as platonic or familial. It’s not what could be described as a radical claiming of homosexuality. But, once more, nothing about Dumbledore’s situation suggests he’s in a position to be out, loud and proud. The Auror (think wizard police) needling him about their relationship goes on to bind Dumbledore in manacles to monitor his use of magic.

Any Potter fan worth their salt will remember that moment in The Philosopher’s Stone when a young Harry asks the headmaster what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. As Dumbledore gives the reply of socks, Harry gets the feeling that he isn’t being totally honest. But Harry realises that he has asked something incredibly personal: what does Albus Dumbledore want more than anything else? In The Crimes of Grindelwald, that question is finally answered.

When Dumbledore looks into the Mirror of Erised, he sees Gindelwald. At first Dumbledore glimpses their shared past – but when the memories fade away, it is the present day Grindelwald who stares back at him. Gellert Grindelwald is his deepest desire. This has some terrifying implications, both for Dumbledore and the audience. What does it say about Albus Dumbledore that the man he wants more than anything else in the world is a manipulative serial killer with a penchant for fascism? Near the beginning of the film, Dumbledore offers some words of encouragement to Newt Scamander. He says: “Do you know why I admire you, Newt? You do not seek power. You simply ask ‘is a thing right?'” In this respect, Newt is the opposite of a young Dumbledore and Grindelwald – which Dumbledore is plainly conscious of.

The nature of their relationship is not erased, but made painfully clear. The mirror of erised scene communicates more about how Dumbledore loves than if he had climbed to the top of the astronomy tower and bellowed “I’M GAY!” in Michael Gambon’s glorious bass tones. We witness how deeply Dumbledore’s love of Grindelwald runs. We see how Dumbledore is torn between wanting Grindelwald and knowing that he must be stopped.

I saw The Crimes of Grindelwald at the cinema with my mum and her partner, a far cry from the nuclear family, and all three of us enjoyed it. One thing in particular stood out to me, aside from the thrill of seeing a young Minerva McGonagall. By my count, there are more lines spoken by people of colour in The Crimes of Grindelwald than all seven Potter films put together. Zoë Kravitz is captivating as Leta Lestrange, and at the heart of the action. I think it’s significant that J. K. Rowling has listened to fans, thought about who is shown to occupy her magical world, and done better this time around.

While the film has been widely criticised on other counts, most notably the casting of Johnny Depp in the wake of allegations that he was physically and verbally abusive towards Amber Heard, I believe that claims of straight-washing are misplaced. The Crimes of Grindelwald gives a nuanced depiction of same-sex love. Although Dumbledore doesn’t come out verbally, his sexuality isn’t forced back into the shadow, implicit realm of the closet – as some have argued. While the film doesn’t break fresh ground with representation, there is power in the Potterverse.

The Crimes of Grindelwald debuted at the top of the UK box office, and grossed £12.32 million on its opening weekend – second only to the runaway success of Avengers: Infinity War. This film is being watched by thousands upon thousands of people of all different ages. And so it might even open the door to the inclusion of more same-sex relationships in family friendly films.