A note on “Troy: Fall of a City”

Sometime this year, Netflix and the BBC will bestow upon us their eight-episode take on the Trojan War, titled Troy: Fall of a City. I am very eager to watch it and have constantly been checking for updates, although all we have so far is a partial cast list and a few photos. One of the most striking things about the available information is that black actors have been cast to play several major roles. David Gyasi is Achilles, Lemogang Tsipa is Patroclus, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim is Zeus. There’s also Alfred Enoch, whose “mother is of Afro-Brazilian ancestry” (source) as Aeneas, and Alex Lanipekun, who is “of Nigerian, Italian and English descent” (source) as Pandarus.

I wish to state in no uncertain terms that I am ONE HUNDRED PERCENT in favour of this. I think it is FANTASTIC. When I saw those names start to pop up in the cast list I got SUPER EXCITED. It is 2018 and diverse casting has ARRIVED.

Well, I guess not everyone is as thrilled about this as I am. Last night when I loaded the series’ IMDb page to see whether or not we have a release date yet (no such luck), I noticed a funny thing: people have been submitting user reviews, and the average rating is a mere 1.2/10. Slow clap to the reviewers who wrote their comment as if they had seen the show. The show that doesn’t even have a release date yet.

Twenty-four of the twenty-six user reviews on the site at the moment are one-star reviews commenting solely on the diverse casting. The overall gist is that it is disrespectful to Greek history to cast black actors in these roles. A couple of the commenters say they are Greek. One begins with the line “This is offensive to all Greeks and to all Europeans,” which I love. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to offend 711 million people.

Well, I am neither Greek nor European. I can only speak on this issue as a white Canadian. So here are my thoughts.

Troy: Fall of a City is a joint project between Netflix, an American company, and the BBC, a British company. The majority of the actors in the cast list are British and the show is being filmed in English. While I risk offending all Greeks and many Europeans in saying this, I think it is safe to say that Greeks are not the primary target audience in the creators’ minds. I think the primary target audience for this particular show are Brits and Americans.

I think it’s valid for the people of a culture who produced a certain story to have mixed feelings when a different culture takes that story and reshapes it to suit their own purposes. I think there are real conversations to be had about the ownership of stories. However, I also think that the Trojan War has become an important story in English-speaking cultures, and has been so since at least 1473, when Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye became the first book ever printed in the English language. I think that Troy: Fall of a City is just another entry in the long tradition of English speakers reshaping the Trojan War story to reflect the issues they are dealing with. And it’s no secret that race is a major issue in diverse English-speaking countries like Britain, the U.S., and even Canada. It’s no secret that life in these countries is full of difficult discussions about race. I think the diverse casting in Troy: Fall of a City is a response to the discussions happening in the countries that form its target audience. It’s a response to the racial diversity of the show’s target audience.

One IMDb user claims that the series is “blackwashing” Greek history. This is of course a take on the word “whitewashing,” which, when used in discussions about film, refers to the practice of casting white actors to play or to replace people of colour. One major reason whitewashing is such a problem is because of the power that white people hold in the countries where whitewashing is done. Casting white actors instead of actors of colour is a way to silence the voices of people of colour and rob them of a crucial platform from which to tell their own stories. It puts white characters and their stories at the forefront, while people of colour are portrayed as simple stereotypes or tropes. Whitewashing is a problem because it is one of the many ways in which people of colour are discriminated against.

“Blackwashing,” in contrast, is … not a thing. As long as white people hold most of the power in these countries, the voices of white people are not in danger of being silenced. Our stories are not in danger of being erased. There are apparently so few black people in Greece that they are not mentioned on either Wikipedia’s Demographics of Greece page nor on its Minorities in Greece page, and the African immigrants to Greece page is a mere three paragraphs long. The casting of five black actors in one Trojan War adaptation is not going to erase Greek history. It’s not going to threaten the power white Greeks hold in Greece. It’s not going to silence the voices of white Greeks who want to talk about their history. It’s not going to trick people into thinking that Homer’s Achilles is black. It’s just not.

I mean, look. You can pick LITERALLY ANY Trojan War screen adaptation produced in the Western world from 1911’s The Fall of Troy to 2004’s Troy and you’ll find a cast as white as the freshly fallen snow. I have been racking my brain all day and the only Western movie based on Greek mythology that I know of in which a person of colour plays a major role is 2014’s Hercules. That’s OVER A HUNDRED YEARS of Greek mythology on film in which the major characters are played by white actors. This ONE series in which a black actor plays Achilles is not going to erase the HUNDRED YEARS in which he’s been portrayed as white. Scratch that – this ONE series is not going to erase the THREE MILLENNIA in which he’s been portrayed as white. Surely a black actor can play Achilles onscreen ONE TIME without it being declared “terrible,” “offensive” and “enraging.”

(And if anyone wants to argue that all ancient Greeks thought of everyone at Troy as white, well – surprise!)

One last thing. I think it’s a good guess to say that the presence of Pandarus and Troilus (and Diomedes) in the cast list probably indicates that the romance of Troilus and Cressida will be woven into Troy: Fall of a City. But “the story of Troilus and Cressida is a medieval tale that is not part of Greek mythology” (source). It’s interesting to note that while the IMDb commenters feel that the casting of black actors “is an insult to the very base of Greek history and culture,” the inclusion of a subplot created in France and England over two thousand years after the Iliad was written is apparently totally cool and merits no comment whatsoever.

UGH. I hate that I have to spend time writing about THIS when what I REALLY want to be writing about is the IMPORTANT questions, namely:

1) When this series was first announced, it came with the promise of a Game of Thrones level of violence and nudity, but I am a total prude. Will there be sufficient warning so that I know when to avert my delicate eyes?

2) Is it too late to change that title? I mean, Troy: Fall of a City … it sounds like the title of a documentary, not what is promised to be an epic miniseries. Also – spoiler warning??

3) It’s been fourteen years since 2004’s Troy brought us an Achilles and Patroclus who barely tolerate each other and the political climate has changed … somewhat. Will 2018 FINALLY be the year we get a screen Achilles who is an epic warrior and also gay for Patroclus? I can’t wait to find out!!

Edit three months later: If you would like to read more on the topic of black actors in Trojan War adaptations, I really enjoyed the top answer to this question at Reddit’s AskHistorians.

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