There is a more important question to ask than why Greek warrior Achilles is portrayed by a black actor in the new “Troy” series.
Most of you reading this have by now heard, and probably expressed a strong opinion on, the casting of black actor David Gyasi as the legendary Greek hero Achilles in the new Netflix/BBC show, “Troy: Fall of a City”.
Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, the new series tells the well-known ancient Greek story of the decade-long siege of Troy. Gyasi is not the only black actor in the cast; Zeus, father of all the Olympian gods, and Patroklus, are played by Nigerian-born Hakeem Kae-Kazim and South African actor Lemogang Tsipa, respectively.
Many Greeks working in Hollywood recently came out in support of these casting choices on the Golden Globes red carpet. Others, infuriated by what they see as the rewriting of Greek history, have expressed their condemnation online in droves and vowed to boycott the series.
I have read solid, well-thought-out perspectives on both sides (ignoring the racist remarks and viewpoints I have come across). But in my opinion, we are focusing on the wrong question.
Because I don’t find myself asking, “Why is Achilles black?”
Instead, the question bothering me is, “Why is Achilles never Greek?”
Time and time again, we see fully Anglo-Saxon presentations of Greek epics, with nary a Greek in sight. Light blonde hair and English accents from all those involved are par for the course at this point.
In the previous big-screen incarnation of “Troy”, the Greek heroes were played by Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, and Orlando Bloom. Famous Greek heroes and kings constantly have their names Anglicized and butchered (hello King LeoNAYdas in “300” – played by the Scottish Gerard Butler), and actors of almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian descent are cast as our legendary heroes.
Look at the rest of the cast of “Troy: Fall of a City”. Find one Greek, nay, even one Mediterranean or Middle Eastern last name, on the cast list. I’ll save you the time: there isn’t one. Every single actor who shows up in at least 50% of the series is Anglo-Saxon, white South African (of English and/or Dutch descent), with a couple more from the Nordic region.
This is in line with the problematic idea in the West that the strong figures and heroes of history generally look like northern Europeans; everyone else is just someone to be saved, or a minor supporting character.
To be clear, the fault in no way lies with the actors, nor am I directing any judgement towards them. Actors trying to make a living and being offered what some may consider dream parts are, of course, going to take them.
My criticism is instead directed at the Hollywood and London-based film studios, the studios that have a very definite idea of what a hero, a king, a strong mythical figure should look and be like, and simply cannot imagine Greeks, or even Mediterranean people, in those epic roles. What are southern Europeans in the imagination of the rest of the Western world, after all? According to the way we’re portrayed in media, we’re lazy; we’re irresponsible; we’re temperamental and loud. There’s nothing noble in most Westerners’ idea of modern Greeks, unfortunately.
In an age where the public image of Greeks has been dragged down due to an ongoing financial and debt crisis, when Greeks on TV are still largely presented as quirky diner owners, immigrants with funny accents, or simple-minded locals with the “earthy” wisdom needed to help the (undoubtedly northern European) protagonist, why can’t we at least be cast as heroes in our own stories?
Casting black actors in one major, and two smaller, roles, is not Hollywood or the BBC being “politically correct”. It is an attempt to deflect any potential criticism regarding the lack of real diversity in their productions; it is a token effort to point attention away from the fact that yet again 95% of the main roles in their mythical Greek epic – which takes place in a city in present-day Turkey – are cast with men and women sporting Anglo-Saxon names and northern European features.
How many UK-born, raised, and trained Greeks exist in the London acting scene? Off the top of my head, I can think of ten great ones at least, and many more on their way up. There are many highly-trained Greek actors and actresses in Greece, the United States, and even some in South Africa; after all, the popular ITV show “The Durrells” managed to easily find Greek actors to portray Greek roles in their series. Even including actors of Mediterranean and coastal Middle Eastern descent would make much more sense for the tale of Troy.
If Greek stories had been told authentically for years now, and any previous effort had been made to include actors of Greek descent, this reincarnation of Homer’s story would be no bother at all; it would be an artistic re-telling, much like “Hamilton” on Broadway seeks a new, modern take on the story of the founding fathers of the US, a story that has been told with ethnically correct actors for decades now.
The bottom line is, film studios love taking and telling our stories; they care much less about including us in them. This is why my problem is not so much with Achilles being black. Instead, film and TV studios need to change their perspective so those of Greek, or even Mediterranean descent, can finally be cast as the heroes in their own stories; so we can finally tell our own tales, the grand myths, histories, and legends of our own culture.
One day soon, I want Achilles to be Greek.