This post is specifically for those who have a problem with the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase. It’s a shame such posts need to be written, but they do. First, let me be clear I am speaking here only for myself. These thoughts are mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect or represent the opinions of any part of Disney, the TV show, the production team, or the Jeffries family.
The response to the casting of Leah has been overwhelmingly positive and joyous, as it should be. 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.
If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me. You have no one else to blame. Whatever else you take from this post, we should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong. As strong as Leah is, as much as we have discussed the potential for this kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now.
I was quite clear a year ago, when we announced our first open casting, that we would be following Disney’s company policy on nondiscrimination: We are committed to diverse, inclusive casting. For every role, please submit qualified performers, without regard to disability, gender, race and ethnicity, age, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other basis prohibited by law. We did that. The casting process was long, intense, massive and exhaustive.
I have been clear, as the author, that I was looking for the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary for me. We did that. We took a year to do this process thoroughly and find the best of the best. This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.
Some of you have apparently felt offended or exasperated when your objections are called out online as racist. “But I am not racist,” you say. “It is not racist to want an actor who is accurate to the book’s description of the character!”
Let’s examine that statement.
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. “She doesn’t look the way I always imagined.”
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. 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. And by the way, these criticisms have come from across the political spectrum, right and left.
You have decided that I couldn’t possibly mean what I have always said: That the true nature of the character lies in their personality. You feel I must have been coerced, brainwashed, bribed, threatened, whatever, or I as a white male author never would have chosen a Black actor for the part of this canonically white girl.
You refuse to believe me, the guy who wrote the books and created these characters, when I say 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. Once you see Leah as Annabeth, she will become exactly the way you imagine Annabeth, assuming you give her that chance, but you refuse to credit that this may be true.
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.
Friends, that is racism.
And before you resort to the old kneejerk reaction — “I am not racist!” — let’s examine that statement too.
If I may quote from an excellent recent article in the Boston Globe about Dr. Khama Ennis, who created a program on implicit bias for the Massachusetts Board of Registration for Medicine in Boston: “To say a person doesn’t have bias is to say that person isn’t human. It’s how we navigate the world … based on what we’re taught and our own personal histories.”
Racism/colorism isn’t something we have or don’t have. I have it. You have it. We all do. And not just white people like me. All people. It’s either something we recognize and try to work on, or it’s something we deny. Saying “I am not racist!” is simply declaring that you deny your own biases and refuse to work on them.
The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength. There is power in plurality. The things that distinguish us from one another are often our marks of individual greatness. You should never judge someone by how well they fit your preconceived notions. That neurodivergent kid who has failed out of six schools, for instance, may well be the son of Poseidon. Anyone can be a hero.
If you don’t get that, 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. You didn’t learn anything from them.
Watch the show or don’t. That’s your call. But this will be an adaptation that I am proud of, and which fully honors the spirit of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, taking the bedtime story I told my son twenty years ago to make him feel better about being neurodivergent, and improving on it so that kids all over the world can continue to see themselves as heroes at Camp Half-Blood.