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'Percy Jackson' author pens powerful letter in defense of casting new Annabeth Chase

Rick Riordan at a book signing in 2007.

When my son got into the "Percy Jackson" books in the sixth grade, I hadn’t really heard of the series but I learned it's much like the "Harry Potter" for Gen Zers. Enormously thick books were devoured in under a week and alarms were set for the next release in the series. Searches were on for the super-secret hidden book that wraps up a few loose ends and a fandom was born. But when the books were made into a live action movie, true fans of the series were left confused and disappointed, so when it was discovered that "Percy Jackson" was getting a reboot, fans rejoiced. Then the cast was announced, which should have been a moment of celebration for the fantastic actors chosen and the effort to bring representation to Greek mythology, but some fans were less than thrilled.

Leah Jeffries, a Black girl, and Aryan Simhadri, an Indian American boy, were cast to play Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood, Percy’s best friends. The trio go on adventures and help each other out of sketchy predicaments that can only be experienced by demigods and satyrs. But… it didn’t take long for naysayers to start piping up over fictional characters being represented by people of color, particularly Annabeth being played by a Black girl, when the character in the series has blond hair. Eventually, the growing discontent caught the attention of none other than Rick Riordan himself and he not only took to Twitter to defend the young star, but wrote a beautiful strong condemnation of these comments in a letter on his website.


Riordan didn’t shy away from calling out racism in the comments, writing, “You either are not aware, or have dismissed, Leah’s years of hard work honing her craft, her talent, her tenacity, her focus, her screen presence. You refuse to believe her selection could have been based on merit,” he wrote. “Without having seen her play the part, you have pre-judged her (pre + judge = prejudice) and decided she must have been hired simply to fill a quota or tick a diversity box.” Riordan was very clear when he called out the problematic behavior from fans of the series.

The author wasn’t finished there. He continued, “You are judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks. She is a Black girl playing someone who was described in the books as white,” before plainly stating, “Friends, that is racism.”

There’s a subtle irony about the backlash surrounding Annabeth being represented by a Black girl, as the book’s version of Annabeth is related to Greek goddess Athena, who many believe to have been taken from African culture. In fact, Neith, the Egyptian goddess, is said to be Athena’s prototype. Neith was the goddess of creation, wisdom, weaving and war. She is also believed to be Ra’s mother. Athena is the Greek goddess of war, handicraft (weaving) and reason (wisdom), she was worshipped from 449-420 BC, while Neith was worshiped as early as 3000 BC. Neith’s worship was most prominent from 664-525 BC, but there are reports that Athena was most prominently worshiped between 900-700 BC.

While the worshipping of the two goddesses didn’t overlap, they definitely bounced a bit between the two but it comes down to first mention, and Neith has Athena beat by a few thousand years. If you’re looking to the gods and goddesses of times past to verify the role of Annabeth Chase, it's clear that she is now being more accurately portrayed. Funny how that old argument on which came first, the chicken or the egg, can also be applied to Greek and Egyptian mythology and the 21st century portrayal of one of Athena’s faux relatives.

Athena, Goddess of War.

www.flickr.com

While Riordan did not mince words in defense of Annabeth being played by Leah Jeffries, he also praised her skill in her craft: “Leah brings so much energy and enthusiasm to this role, so much of Annabeth’s strength. She will be a role model for new generations of girls who will see in her the kind of hero they want to be.”

The author helped to handpick the actors portraying his larger-than-life characters and we as an audience should not only trust his judgment, but look at the faces of the children these actors will represent. Diversity is becoming such a buzzword that people forget that you can have diversity and the best for the job. One is not exclusive of the other. It seems as if Rick Riordan and his casting team have struck that balance.

Riordan didn’t stop there. The author has a diversity program on his website called Rick Riordan Presents, with the goal of publishing four books a year by diverse writers who write in the same mythology genre. He uses this platform, and his relationship with Disney, to champion underrepresented voices. Riordan makes it clear that he strives for diversity in the spaces that he occupies and that’s a beautiful thing.

Whether the role of Annabeth Chase was played by a Black actor or not should not cause such a stir. Having a cast that looks more like the world we inhabit is a good thing and the way Riordan has leaned into representation and diversity can inspire others to do the same.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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