Hollywood’s Hercules Stirs Racial Angst
“Wasn’t Hercules White?” “What is a person of colour doing playing a white Hercules?”
Believe it or not, these questions have Twittersphere in a tizzy. Some die-hard Hercules fans are upset that Black-Samoan wrestling hulk, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is playing the Greek demi-god in the recently released movie.
Tweeps like Haley Bostic exclaim, “I want to go see Hercules buuuutt why is Dwayne Johnson playing him? Isn’t Hercules white with blonde hair.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, a perplexed Andres Zepeda cranks it up a notch. “Black Hercules?,” he Tweets. “Couldn’t just stop at black president ay? Black people pushing the whitemans [sic] buttons what’s next a black Toby Keith?”
Even some African Americans are upset. An irate Monty tells the world, “still pissed that the Rock is playing Hercules. Hercules is a fictional whiteman. foh.”
Clearly, director Brett Ratner struck a nerve. Casting The Rock in the lead role has revealed rather unexpectedly that the mythical Greek hero still has a powerful hold on our imagination, but for all the wrong reasons.
For in a supposedly “post-racial” America, the online uproar has all the semblance of a dream gone bad. Why has the race of a character that never actually existed stirred so much passion?
Would the Ancient Greeks have bristled at the sight of The Rock, clad in brown body armour, channelling his inner-Hercules? Surly not.
In fact, the ancients’ own testimony actually shows that they had absolutely no qualms with a Hercules whose origins lay in a land of dark women and men.
Classical Greek historian Herodotus, generally considered the “Father of History,” for example, was unequivocal on the matter. In his lengthy account of Egyptian civilization, he wrote, “Amphitryon and Alcmena, father and mother to the Grecian Hercules, were both of Egyptian descent.”
Three-hundred years later, distinguished Greek historian Diodorus Siculus echoed Herodutus’ assertion. Without any question, he averred, Hercules was originally an Egyptian god.
That very idea of an Egyptian descended Hercules could explain why a 6th century (BCE) Greek artist used a vase to depict the legendary hero as a dark-skinned and tightly-curly haired man, alongside unambiguously Black Egyptian soldiers and priests. At the time, it was standard practice for Greeks to paint and even describe Egyptians as possessing Black skin and tightly curled hair.
Herodotus, for example, wrote of “black-skinned” and “woolly haired” Egyptians. Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus described Egyptians, in his play the Suppliants, as having noticeably black limbs. Even Aristotle recounted in his work Physiognomy that both Egyptians and Ethiopians had Black skin.
Scholars have and will likely continue to debate the merits of these contentious descriptions.
But for our purposes, the matter is clearer cut: the canonical writing passed down from figures like Herodotus and Diodorus prove that a non-European Hercules did not offend Ancient Greek sensibilities. Quite the contrary. Greece’s most famous historians embraced a Hercules with Northern African roots.
So if the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a problem, why does a light-brown complexioned Hercules bother some today? Could this unease with a non-European Hercules be a symptom of a deeper and yet to be resolved problem?
If anything, the Twitter uproar reminds us that race still matters. That race continues to affect the way many of us try to make sense of the world, even when it is an imaginary world!
Perhaps with their vision of an African Hercules, the Ancient Greeks have a few things to teach us about embracing diversity, despite the inequalities endemic in their city-states.
Peter Frederick Flegel