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‘Percy Jackson’ author condemns racist backlash to casting decision

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Rick Riordan, author of the popular Percy Jackson young adult novels, on Tuesday defended the casting of a young Black actress in the role of Annabeth Chase, a character initially written as White, in an upcoming Disney Plus television adaptation of the fantasy series.

The 12-year-old actress, Leah Jeffries, has faced ridicule online since last week’s casting announcement for the Greek mythology-inspired show, which follows a demigod named Percy Jackson and his two best friends, Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood. In response to the comments, Jeffries filmed a video — later shared on Twitter — in which she stated, “Stop doing that. I know you think that it’s going to hurt me, though. It’s not. You’re just wasting time. I’m still confident in myself.”

While noting that the response to Jeffries’s casting has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Riordan wrote in a blog post that the racist comments toward Jeffries are “out of line” and “need to stop.”

“You are upset/disappointed/frustrated/angry because a Black actor has been cast to play a character who was described as white in the books,” he stated, adding that “judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks … is racism.”

Riordan explained that the casting process followed Disney’s “company policy on nondiscrimination,” and that “these actors are perfect for the roles because of the talent they bring and the way they used their auditions to expand, improve and electrify the lines they were given.”

“If you’re still upset about the casting of this marvelous trio, then it doesn’t matter how many times you have read the books,” he wrote. “You didn’t learn anything from them.”

The casting announcement also included news that the actor Aryan Simhadri, who is of South Asian descent, had landed the role of Grover, who was also written as White in the books. This isn’t the first Percy Jackson adaptation to star actors of different races than the original characters; in the 2010 film “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” starring Logan Lerman in the title role, Grover was played by Brandon T. Jackson, who is Black.

The racism directed toward Jeffries echoes the experiences of other Black actresses in young adult adaptations, such as Amandla Stenberg. Despite author Suzanne Collins describing the “Hunger Games” character Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” Stenberg faced widespread racism online after she was cast as Rue in the 2012 film.

Years later, Stenberg told BuzzFeed News that she already knew such racism existed — “that there was resistance to having black girls in films, and that black women are dehumanized and their lives are seen as less valuable than white lives” — but that “the irony of the whole situation was that Rue was one of the only characters I could find in the content I loved that was literally written as black.”

In 2016, Noma Dumezweni also faced an onslaught of racism after she was cast as an adult Hermione Granger in the West End production of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” In an interview with the Sunday Times, Dumezweni noted, “I am a black woman who has been given this character called Hermione to play on the stage. But actually, we’ve all grown up with the books, with Emma Watson playing her in the films. Imagery is so strong.”

The racist backlash was driven by “ignorance,” Dumezweni continued. “It drives me crazy. It’s a limitation. Because this is absolutely a different form.”

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