“Black Panther” may be storming the global box office, but casting actors of color in the Netflix and BBC epic “Troy: Fall of a City” has stirred up controversy in some quarters. A debate over whether having black actors play Greek gods and heroes is true to Homer’s “Iliad,” which recounts the decade-long siege of Troy, has played out in parts of the press and on social media.
David Gyasi (“Interstellar”) plays Achilles in the series, which, unusually, takes the perspective of the Trojans. Hakeem Kae-Kazim (“Black Sails”) stars as the god Zeus and Lemogang Tsipa as Patroklus. They appear alongside the likes of Louis Hunter and Bella Dayne, who play Paris and Helen, and actor David Threlfall in a deep ensemble cast.
But the choice of non-white actors for key roles has outraged some. “Why does BBC’s new drama ‘Troy: Fall of a City,’ set in 1200 B.C., feel the need to Hector us about race and gender?” a headline in the right-wing Sun tabloid harrumphed. “Controversy looms as mythical Achilles is played by black actor in new BBC epic,” read another on an English-language site about Greek Hollywood.
The debate was also picked up on Twitter, with many debating the casting of Gyasi as Achilles and noting that Homer described the character as blond.
But David Farr, who wrote “Troy” and the BBC and AMC series “The Night Manager,” told Variety that the team went into the casting process with a completely open mind because of the nature of the project. “As you enter the world of myth you have immediately a wonderful freedom,” he said. “I understand that for certain people, probably mainly in Greece, there is a national idea of Achilles. I personally think that they just have to accept that we are looking at this myth, and we had the freedom to cast it as we have.”
Classical historian Bettany Hughes was an adviser on the series, and Farr noted that genuine historical accuracy was not a viable option. “No one knows if Homer’s version of [around 1200 B.C.], which was written 500 years later, is truthful to anything specific, anything particular, or whether it wasn’t an entirely mythic thing.
“You can’t cast Hittites as Trojans; I’d love to do it but sadly there are none available!” said Farr, adding: “We are not claiming that Achilles was actually Ethiopian any more than if a black actor played [King] Arthur. It is simply a casting decision. Whoever came and inhabited the spirit of the characters best we decided to cast.”
The eight-part series is the first for Derek Wax’s Wild Mercury, which produced “Troy” in association with Endemol Shine’s U.K.-based drama specialist Kudos. Wax, a former executive producer at Kudos, set up his own shingle last year, having first had the idea for “Troy” seven years ago. The BBC came on board in 2015 and Netflix the following year.
The “Troy” team was initially keen to have a black Andromache. “We thought that that could be really interesting, but Chloe Pirrie came along and was so fantastic that we decided to cast a white actress.” Wax said: “Diversity is at the heart of our casting and at the heart of what the BBC and Netflix wants. It’s only a controversy if people try to manufacture a controversy out of it.”
Netflix will launch the series in the U.S. and globally once the BBC run has ended. In the U.K., the opening episode won its BBC One Saturday night slot on 17 Feb. with an audience of 3.2 million and a share of 18.2%. Wax and Farr have scoped out a possible follow-up.
“We do have ideas for a second season,” Wax said. “Without giving any spoilers, Homer did write ‘The Odyssey.'”