Entertainment | January 29th, 2024

‘Percy Jackson & The Olympians’ Embraces Diversity in Disney+ Series, Igniting Controversy and Inspiring Change

By: Alexis Rejouis
‘Percy Jackson & The Olympians’ Embraces Diversity in Disney+ Series, Igniting Controversy and Inspiring Change

The heroes, gods, and monsters of Greek myths have been stories familiar to generations of kids because of the famed author Rick Riordan. Riordan’s most notable book series, “Percy Jackson & The Olympians,” written from 2005 to 2009, has now been adapted into a television series that premiers Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST / 6 p.m. PST on Disney+.

The series fulfills fans’ requests for a more accurate screen portrayal. The film adaptations of the books faced criticism for changing the plot and story details, causing a disconnect among fans.

The films did not continue beyond the second movie. However, the show accurately represents the plot and elements from the books while surprising fans with every episode as each new character reveals a more diverse cast.



Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase in “Percy Jackson and The Olympians” on Disney+ || Photo Courtesy: DISNEY/DAVID BUKACH

One character in particular, Leah Sava Jeffries, who plays Annabeth Chase, the daughter of goddess Athena, sparked controversy because she is Black, but fans previously understood her character to be white.

Riordan, who initially wrote and described Annabeth with the physical features of a white woman in the books, is shouldering the responsibility of the scriptwriting for the character as a Black woman and views it as a source of pride. In an interview with The Wrap, Riordan talks about how he and Disney had what they call “sensitivity readers” in order to make sure Jeffries was being properly represented in the show.

“[Annabeth] was not a Black woman when I wrote ‘The Lightning Thief,’” Riordan said. “Having that is amazing and wonderful, but it also comes with the responsibility of doing a good job.”

Riordan further emphasizes his support of Jeffries by publicly defending her against online criticism and racism following her casting announcement in the show.

On his website, he left fans with a lengthy personal message titled “Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.” In the message, he passionately tells his fans their comments will not be tolerated and that he chose characters based on their talent and what they brought to the role, not what they looked like.

“The negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now,” Riordan said. “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.”

 For fans of the series, they viewed the casting of the characters similarly to how Riordan views them. Zafir Furqan, a fourth-year business administration student and an avid fan of the series, recalls reading the books and not thinking about what he saw physically in the characters.

“I didn’t really imagine what race each individual was,” Furqan says. “I’m more focused on their superpowers, their character qualities, what they brought to their quest and how they were trying to finish it.”

Despite the focus on the quality of the character itself, the image of a young Black woman playing a character is still a source of inspiration for the black community.

Tristian Hutton, a fourth-year broadcast journalism student who grew up reading the Percy Jackson books, comments on how this image of a Black woman in this role is uplifting for the portrayal of Black people in the media.

“I think Jeffries being cast is great for the Black community because you get to see a powerful young Black girl in a big role on the show,” Hutton says. “I’m very appreciative of it because that’s starting to put more Black people in prominent roles and films and not those typical trauma bonding films like Tyler Perry movies and ‘The Color Purple.’”

The racist backlash that Jeffries received is not something uncommon for black actresses. This has been experienced by other actresses such as Candice Patton, who played Iris West in the CW series ‘The Flash,’ and Halle Bailey, who played Ariel in the live-action ‘The Little Mermaid.’


Leah Sava Jeffries for Teen Vogue || Photo Courtesy: DISNEY/EDWARD HERRERA

The discrimination they encountered sheds light on the hurdles and barriers faced by Black women in Hollywood. However, amidst the adversity, there is a shift towards embracing diversity and representing different perspectives.

Although the original writing of books was not meant for diverse audiences, the sentiment that the characters support different perspectives within different communities resonates with Riordan’s original purpose for writing the books.

“The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength. There is power in plurality,” Riordan says. “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.”