Detroit-area teen in new Disney+ series faces racial backlash

Detroit-area teen in new Disney+ series faces racial backlash

Leah Sava Jeffries landed her first major role at the age of 5 on Fox’s Empire.

Now the 12-year-old actress from Metro Detroit will star in the upcoming Disney+ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

The news was greeted with pride and good wishes on the Facebook page of the Novi Community School District, where Jeffries is a seventh grader.

“Leah is an amazing young lady! I’m so incredibly happy for her!” one person posted. “Congratulations, what a great achievement!” wrote another.

She also appears to be strong beyond her years. Since her casting was announced in Variety last week, Jeffries has been hit with all-too-familiar ugliness on social media for being a black actress cast as a character described as white in the Percy Jackson books.

Jeffries responded with an Instagram Live post thanking her fans and promising that she will remain hopeful. “Whoever hates, stop it! I know you think this is gonna hurt me. That’s not it. You’re just wasting time,” she said.

Percy Jackson writer Rick Riordan denounced the racist criticism on his blog, writing, “The response to casting Leah has been overwhelmingly positive and joyous, as it should be. Leah brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the role, so much of Annabeth’s strength. She will be a role model for new generations of girls who will see her as the kind of heroine they want to be.”

Riordan continued, “However, if you have an issue with this casting, reach out to me. You have no one else to blame. Whatever you take away from this post, we should be able to agree that being bullied and harassed a child online is inexcusably wrong. As strong as Leah is, as much as we’ve talked about the potential for that kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she’s received online are misplaced. You must stop. Now .”

Riordan also posted that during a year-long casting process he was looking for the best actors to play the three characters: “This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.”

The Disney+ series will star Walker Scobell in the title role of 12-year-old Percy, a teenage demigod; Aryan Simhadri as Grover, a satyr who is half boy and half goat; and Jeffries as Annabeth, a daughter of the goddess Athena.

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For Jeffries, it’s another step in her career as a rising young star. She also appeared as Lil Rel Howery’s daughter in the Fox comedy Rel. Her last film, Beast, is described as a father trying to save his family from a vicious lion in an African wildlife sanctuary.

Jeffries will also star in an upcoming holiday romantic comedy called Something from Tiffany’s. It stars Zoey Deutch and Shay Mitchell and is being produced by Amazon Studios and Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine.

Jeffries was just 5 years old when she starred in the hit drama Empire as the recurring character Lola, who turned out to be the daughter of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). Prior to Empire, Jeffries worked as a child model, including for the Carol’s Daughter brand of children’s products.

In 2015, Empire casting director Claire Simon praised Jeffries’ performance and told the Free Press that her character, who was slated to appear in a few episodes, was always re-written into the show.

“Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, she had this amazingly charismatic personality,” said Simon.

Novi Middle School Principal Robert Baker describes Jeffries as a student who “has a friendly smile on her face at all times, a presence in the hallways that people are drawn to, someone who cares deeply taking care of her friends”.

Baker says Jeffries works with tutors when she’s away from school on acting assignments and maintains “the most positive attitude” when she returns to school and adjusts to that schedule again.

What also sets Jeffries apart, according to Baker, is that she is “very focused on what it takes to achieve her goals.” “She has a vision for herself and what she wants to do.”

This isn’t Metro Detroit’s first connection to a “Percy Jackson” project. Brandon T. Jackson — the son of Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Detroit’s Great Faith Ministries International — played Grover in the 2010 film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at jhinds@freepress.com.

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