Black Achilles and White Matthew

[Note: I wrote this post a month ago and have been tinkering with it on and off since. Given that the show premiers tonight in the UK (possibly already) and it’s framed as if we don’t know how the show turns out, I figured it was now or never to post it!]

Human beings have strange obsessions. When the actor Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond in the early noughties, there was an angry reaction based on the colour of his hair. “Bond not blond” was the cry – in those halcyon pre-Twitter days, there was no hashtag – a cry which largely died down when Casino Royale was released and was largely well-received.

The cry arose in another direction in 2015 when writer Anthony Horowitz said that Idris Elba – a fan and Sony executive favourite to play the spy – was ‘too street’ to play James Bond. Based on the long history of the use of the word ‘street’ in racialised contexts, this comment was interpreted as racist – Elba could not play James Bond because he was black. (It’s worth noting that when this was pointed out to Horowitz he rescinded his statement in horror.) Meanwhile, watching Elba act or seeing him in any context in which he is allowed to be suave shows that he could have been a fine Bond indeed.

Concerns over the casting of James Bond goes back to the early 1960s, when Bond-creator Ian Fleming opposed the casting of Scottish actor Sean Connery for his refined and sophisticated character. After watching Connery, however, Fleming’s opinion changed (or so the story goes). The next Bond book Fleming wrote – You Only Live Twice – introduced Bond’s Scottish ancestry. If you’re convinced by a performance, it can change your idea of what a hero can be.

The same, but different

Beneath both of these arguments rumbled another question, one that never quite makes it to the surface: in the twenty-first century, with the Cold War more than a quarter-century over, should there still be a place for James Bond in our cinematic landscape? The man is a rampant imperialist and – as Craig freely admits – misogynist, promoting anachronistic British power in a world that needs to escape fantasies of heroic spies and torture that provides reliable information. Continuing to glamorise such a man in the current cultural climate is likely to worsen our already dark outlook on the world. Can the James Bond story be retold in such a way as to make it more relevant for the twenty-first century?

The value of culture is not always that it is aspirational or relevant to the current climate. It is just one way to produce meaningful art. When one reads the Iliad or the Odyssey, part of the fascination is that these poems present a world fundamentally different to our own that takes effort to truly comprehend. When modern writers retell these stories, they try to make them more relatable to our own values: the war is not just because Helen was taken, and the Achaean leaders swore an oath, but because Agamemnon is hungry for the wealth of Troy; Achilles is so enraged by the death of Patroclus because they are lovers. Changing interpretations of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship go back at least as far as Aeschylus’ Myrmidons in the early fifth century BCE. Aeschylus and other Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries presented their relationship as pederasty; nowadays, they are usually homosexual.

Retelling old stories matters, because it can change our perspective on that story. The motivation for the war at Troy changes based on whether we can comprehend the significance of the oath, on whether we believe Helen went willingly or was forced, on how much we want Agamemnon to deserve his murder at the hands of Clytaemnestra on his return. It tells us about what we consider motives for war in our own time or, perhaps more accurately, what we see as excuses for war in the present. Certain elements of the story seem incomprehensible to the modern world, such as the Wooden Horse. Why would the Trojans take it into the city? Without the religious context – and the snakes sent by Minerva to kill Laocoön and his sons as in the Aeneid – it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. But it’s also familiar, integral to the story.

On the other hand, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is redefined based on acceptable male relationships; or, perhaps more bluntly, acceptable male relationships for a hero. In Aeschylus’ Myrmidons Achilles is older than Patroclus (contra the Iliad) because it was more acceptable for the more powerful hero to be the erastes in a pederastic relationship. In Plato’s Symposium his speaker Phaedrus disagrees, following the epic (but still maintaining that they were lovers). Xenophon, meanwhile, did not believe that they were lovers at all; W. M. Clarke argued in 1978 that this was because he, too, could not imagine the more powerful hero as the younger erastes, the beloved, usually the less powerful one in the relationship.

The forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City has been the cause of controversy because of the casting of a black actor, David Gyasi, as Achilles. The angry response is threefold. Firstly, that the casting is historically inaccurate, which I hope that the preceding has shown to be poor reasoning (but I’ve also written about how the Trojan War isn’t history in the past). Secondly, that it is ‘cultural appropriation’ (perhaps, if it were directed at all non-Greek adaptations such as Frank Miller’s 300 and other Greek-free film adaptations – rather than specifically focused on the casting of a black man as Achilles; the idea that it’s casting a black man that ‘harms’ Greek culture or “deconstruct[s] white mythic heroes to nothing more than Africans” as one white supremacist put it, is where the racism lies). Thirdly, that it is impossible to picture David Gyasis as a Greek hero (as opposed to Dwayne Johnson, who similar critics tell me ‘looks Greek’). We have been constrained by our ideas about what a (Greek) hero is so that we cannot picture him as a black man.[i]

Not without doubts…

Casting a black actor to play Achilles simply says that we are comfortable with the idea of a black man being a hero. It should not be a particularly revolutionary act. If Achilles remains fundamentally the same character all that we are doing is accepting that black men can be assimilated into European stories – might it not have been better to provide funding to adapt stories from another culture, one where most or every character can be a person of colour? Worse, choosing Achilles as the hero you cast as black is potentially even more hazardous: Achilles’ defining feature in the Iliad is his rage; we should be worried about falling into the trope of the “scary black man”.

Fortunately, the casting of Troy: Fall of a City has more to it than a black Achilles. Zeus is played by Hakeen Kae-Kazim while Patroclus is played by Lemogang Tsipa, giving a more rounded representation of black masculinity; the only woman of colour I could spot in the cast list was Shamilla Miller as Athena (and I’m not 100% certain of her ethnicity), but apparently after thirty years people are over the controversy of a black Athena.

Patroclus is potentially the most interesting character here. It’s unclear at this point what the relationship between him and Achilles will be, but I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Madeline Millar’s The Song of Achilles and reflecting on the role of Patroclus there. He’s atypically masculine for the world he inhabits, and one could argue has some elements of stereotypical homosexuality. But Achilles is still the masculine war machine he is in epic; together, they provide some balance to the story of a queer relationship in mythological times.

One of the best films I saw in 2017 was Moonlight, a story about the ways in which black masculinity makes the struggles of growing up gay more acute. It’s a story that rarely gets told in any genre of film making and that Moonlight is award winning is an incredibly important cultural moment. Including a queer, black, heroic relationship in a well-known story will make Troy: Fall of a City a worthwhile retelling.

It’s worth noting that making Achilles and Patroclus lovers does not avoid harmful contemporary tropes. If Achilles only shows his emotions when Patroclus is killed (shedding Manly Tears, or Berserker Tears, and later feeling Mangst) the story can play into toxic ideas about masculinity and the importance of male heroes holding back on their emotions. Further, there is the more insidious trope of ‘bury your gays’, in which queer relationships are inevitably tragic. How well the show deals with these clichés will be a large part of its success.

And White Me

In first episode of the Netflix series Dear White People, student radio host Sam White points out that “Dear White People” (the name of her radio show) is a misnomer: it’s not actually for white people, but “meant to articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority.” I enjoyed Dear White People, learned a lot from watching it, and intend to watch the film now that it’s on Canadian Netflix, but I am also aware that it doesn’t exist to teach me, and that if I hadn’t enjoyed it, it wouldn’t matter – it’s not for me.

In his 2017 book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the discomfort of finding that his writing was popular with white people. In Coates’ case it’s not so much that it wasn’t for white people, so much as that being published in a magazine that white people recognised as prestigious, The Atlantic, meant that the issues Coates discusses, particularly reparations for slavery, became worthy of discussion – a value they had not had in the minds of white people when they were published in black journals.

Straight, white, cis-gender men like me are accustomed to the idea that most of popular culture is created for us because we have generally been the ones with the power and the privilege of creation and consumption of that media. This idea that we are the main audience for everything, and thus that everything is addressed to us goes further than popular culture into the realm of public social media and can be seen in the responses to virtually any Tweet by a prominent public woman or, as Helen Lewis observed, on any article about feminism. You can see it in the response to the Labour Party’s Equalities Academy that isn’t open to us, because we don’t need it. American sociologist Dr Michael Kimmel coined the term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to describe this phenomenon. But we are not always the audience; we are not entitled to be everywhere. Sometimes women, people of colour, queer people, disabled people, anyone who is not us, just need a space where we’re not there to feel safe and heard. As the song “Let’s Generalize About Men” in the first episode of the third season of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend puts it:

“Let’s get super lit and not admit

This is some kind of primal ritual we need now and then.

Let’s conflate all the guys,

Let’s generalize about men.”

For those of us with power and privilege – straight, white men – we can look at these statements as attacks and get afraid, or we can recognise them as ‘primal rituals’ to vent the frustrations that are created by the system that gives us power. When this system begins to crumble, we can be fragile and rage against it because we are allowing others to be the audience for something that we once considered ours, or we can look forward to a new perspective on one of our old stories. It’s not always for us, and that’s alright. Watch it anyway, and maybe you will change your mind.

[i] The point has been made that actors playing Greek heroes, including those in Troy: Fall of a City, are more likely to be northern European than eastern Mediterranean, such as in this article for Greek Reporter by Joanna Kalafatis. There’s a large part of me that thinks that this point is fair. But there’s another part of me that growls, loudly, drowning out that voice of submission: but why does this only ever come up when a black actor is cast as one of the heroes and not when a white man rewrites the Persian Wars for his own political interests? If the tone were more one of solidarity with black actors I could appreciate it more, I think.

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