I refuse to start this opinion piece with the stereotypical disclaimers like “some of my best friends are black” and “everyone who knows me knows I’m not racist.”
I won’t go that route to try and justify my (very strong) opinion about the new epic TV series “Troy: Fall of a City” that’s coming out on BBC and Netflix that has cast a very talented actor to play the role of the Greek hero Achilles.
A very talented black actor.
The internet is already on fire. And sadly, as in any such situation involving race, the uglies have come out, as well as the intellectuals and regular people like me who are just perplexed and confused.
I mean, would the lead role in a Barack Obama bio-pic ever be cast with a white actor?
Could an Asian actor play Adolph Hitler?
Could a black woman play Anne Frank in a new Holocaust series?
Could a black woman play Melania Trump in an epic feature film called “45” that will chronicle America during the Trump Presidency?
And would there be an outcry if a film about Aretha Franklin, or the American hero Rosa Parks were headlined by white women?
This is one of those opinion pieces that I hate writing. You have to think about the people reading this and how anything you say might (and probably will) offend someone, or even worse, many.
So, what’s wrong with a black actor playing Achilles?
It’s simple. History. The truth. The sources we have that gave us these characters, whether they were mythical or real– it doesn’t matter. What matters is what the original sources told us about these characters.
We know from Homer’s epic poems The Illiad and The Odyssey that Achilles was fair-haired, possibly even blonde.
In the Iliad, Achilles has blonde hair («ξανθῆς δὲ κόμης ἕλε Πηλεΐωνα» = “she (Athena) grabbed Achilles by his blonde hair”; Iliad, 1.197). That’s probably the most persistent characteristic given for him and is repeated numerous times.
The word “xanthē” (ξανθή) used here can be translated as “yellow”, “fair”, “golden” or “blonde”. (Side note: I have a sense of redemption that the 4 semesters of Ancient Greek that I stumbled through in college have just paid off.)
But all joking aside. It’s that simple. It’s mentioned dozens of times in these texts. There is no ambiguity or question amongst scholars of what Homer may have meant or may have been trying to tell us about what Achilles looked like.
Achilles’ κόμη (head of hair) was ξανθή (blonde/fair/light). There can be no interpretation or dispute of Homer’s multiple descriptions.
And why is this a big deal?
Because history cannot be re-written. History should not be re-written for some politically-correct motive or reason, to make one part of society happy– and enrage another.
Because trust me, spend a few minutes reading the comments on Variety‘s story about the television show. People are enraged and a lot of ugliness has come out.
The BBC/Netflix’s decision to cast a black man is a racially-charged move and sadly, much of the on-line banter is already filled with hate– which is why I’ve left out the emotion as much as I could, and have tried to defend my opinion– with facts and logic.
Another reason why this will be a big deal is the mere fact that people just don’t know history and millions of misinterpretations of these stories and characters will occur.
Right now I’m thinking of my friends in middle America and their four kids, sitting on their living room couch watching the series.
What will they say when one of their boys turns and says– “Mommy, Daddy… I thought Achilles was Greek.”
Seriously, how does one answer that? “Oh it’s just Hollywood being silly?” No. You can’t just say that. There are millions of people out there who are impressionable, or unfamiliar with Greek history, or just plain stupid.
God knows we don’t need any more stupid out there. And for the impressionable and unfamiliar– isn’t it our responsibility to teach them real stories and history?
Why are Netflix and the BBC getting into the game of re-writing history and potentially misinforming (or dis-informing?) millions of people whose first-ever glimpse at Greek literature, mythology and history will be through their new series?
I’m guessing that this will be one of the most commented on posts I’ve ever written. I’m no stranger to the strong opinions of the readers of The Pappas Post when subjects like this come up.
My only hope is that in your comments, you, too, can focus on facts and logic– much like the Ancient Greeks, and perhaps even the light-haired hero himself would have wanted us to engage.
Since you’re here… I have a small favor to ask.
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