Hakeem Kae-Kazim, the actor portraying god Zeus on BBC1’s Troy: Fall of a City, has spoken out against the “racist perspective” many have of his casting.
Ever since he was unveiled in the Greek myth retelling, Twitter users have accused Kae-Kazim of everything from rewriting history to ‘blackwashing’ the ancient story and disrespecting Homer’s Iliad. “Ridiculous [that] Zeus, Achilles and Patriculus [sic] all of African descent,” read one of the more polite messages protesting the casting. “Imagine the reaction if they [had] done a doc about Nelson Mandela and cast Colin Firth.”
Many of the tweets fired at Kae-Kazim were angrier and contained language much more volatile. Which begs the obvious question: where did all this rage come from? “It must be from a deep insecurity in understanding who we are as human beings,” Kae-Kazim tells RadioTimes.com. “I was always told to judge somebody by the content of their character and not to judge a book by its cover.”
“Zeus is a God, you know, and what colour is a God?” he says (in fact, Zeus’ true form was a lightning bolt). “Also, this whole idea of race and colour started after the slave trade. [In ancient Greece] borders were open. There are stories in African culture of Greek ships coming down and visiting. Even in the Iliad, Homer talks about the ‘Ethiopians’. And in old Greek culture, the people would have been all sorts of shades.”
So, why is it that their default stance on a black Zeus is outrage rather than intrigue? Or, to put it bluntly, are Kae-Kazim’s critics merely ignorant or plain racist?
“You’d have to ask them that. A lot of it comes from a racist perspective, quite possibly. But I’m glad this debate has happened and that people are discussing it,” he answers.
“Would I want to meet them? Not necessarily. Let them stew in whatever they want to stew in and let me carry on with what I want to do.”
But that isn’t to say Kae-Kazim has shied away from the conversation. Far from it: when his casting was first announced, the actor tried to engage with his critics directly on Twitter. In particular, there was a message from one Greek user that caught Kae-Kazim’s eye. Alongside some derogatory terms, it read “How the hell do these racist ***holes expect anyone to believe that Achilles, Patroclus, Zeus, Aeneas, Odysseus etc who are Greek, can be passed [off] as African [?]”
Despite how aggressive the initial message was, Kae-Kazim attempted to kickstart a polite debate about the issue. Pointing out the double standard of how Egyptians are normally depicted by caucasian Europeans on-screen, he then asked his critic “only to be judged by the content of my character. Peace be upon you.”
It didn’t work.
“He was furious!” Kae-Kazim remembers. “And he wasn’t going to listen to any kind of counter-argument, no matter how it was put. [Such people] don’t listen to any constructive argument.”
This is nothing new. Kae-Kazim’s run-ins with casting difficulties long pre-date Twitter. Now 55 years old, Kae-Kazim started his acting career in the UK where he encountered what he calls, “subtle racism”: the British obsession with historical drama.
As Westworld’s Thandie Newton has pointed out, our fixation with the genre means there are “slim pickings for people of colour” who don’t want to play somebody who’s racially abused. Kae-Kazim says he left the UK as acting work was “very limiting towards” black actors.
However, occasionally the racism was more direct. “I’ve faced it all the way through my career,” Kae-Kazim says. “I was at the National Theatre and I played Edmund in King Lear and one of the reviewers from a national newspaper was very much against the idea of a black man playing the character. It was subtly put, but it was a real deep dig. It really threw me off balance as a young actor. Maybe my performance wasn’t the greatest, but to come at it from a racial perspective was really hurtful at the time. Psychologically, it bruised me very deeply. I kept a clipping of that article for years.”
Sadly, this wasn’t his only negative experience in the UK. “I remember going into one role where my character was written as married to a Caucasian lady and I asked why it couldn’t be a black couple in this story. The frowns and looks I got! It was that sort of attitude that made me think it wasn’t going to happen here.”
And so Kae-Kazim left the UK and roles in The Bill and Grange Hill for bigger parts, making a name for himself abroad. After a brief spell in South Africa, he enjoyed roles in US TV shows 24, Lost and Black Sails and the film Hotel Rwanda.
Hakeem Kae-Kazim at the Golden Globe awards
As Kae-Kazim acknowledges, attitudes have mostly changed. Yet, as the outrage over Troy demonstrates, arguments about race are still a prevalent problem. But how do we approach this issue? While some might say Twitter should do more to ban trolls from its site, Kae-Kazim takes a nuanced view.
“I think it’s a question of telling more and diverse stories, giving an honest interpretation of black contribution to all levels of society,” he explains. “Finding those different stories and different narratives for people of colour within history is really important. Until we start to see that we’re only going to live through these times.”
And it’s here where sirens might start ringing and the “PC gone mad!” banners are hoisted. As some argue, if we’re talking about re-framing narratives then will historically white characters be recast with black actors? Could we soon see a black Shakespeare on screen? Or a dark-skinned Alexander the Great?
“I don’t think it’s going to that point. But I think telling a story is telling a story and great acting is just about great acting,” says Kae-Kazim. “It’s like the argument that Colin Firth couldn’t play Nelson Mandela […] I wouldn’t necessarily be against it if the playing field was level. But I know that it’s an emotive issue at the moment – people aren’t going to go there.”
So, what kind of stories will reframe the narrative? Kae-Kazim has the perfect example: Black Panther, a superhero he briefly voiced in the cartoon The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. “I love it and I think it’s a fantastic film!” he says. “It’s exactly what I’m saying about changing the storyline of people of colour and certainly of Africans.
“I have three daughters and it was really important to see these darker skinned women up there looking beautiful and strong. My children need to see themselves in a positive way. I never saw anyone like me on screen growing up and it’s so important they have that.
“If you really think about it, how many geniuses in the world have we discarded just because of colour? How many people could have given amazing contributions to the world that weren’t allowed to because of their skin? These stories are empowering and they need to be there.”
Troy: Fall of a City is on 9pm Saturday 10th March, BBC1