In "Beast," Leah Jeffries plays the daughter of a recently widowed father (idris Elba) who has to keep his two teenage daughters safe when a trip to a South African refuge goes wrong and they're hunted by a hungry rogue lion in the survival thriller.

Detroit area teen in new Disney+ series faces racist backlash

Leah Sava Jeffries landed her first big role at age 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 for the Novi Community School District, where Jeffries is in seventh grade.

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

She also seems strong beyond her years. Since her casting was announced in Variety last week, Jeffries has faced some 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 that thanked her fans and promised she’ll stay confident. “To whoever is hating, stop doing that! Like, I know you think that’s going to hurt me though. It’s not. You’re just wasting time,” she said.

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

Riordan continued: “If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me. You have no one else to blame. Whatever else you take from this post, we should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong. As strong as Leah is, as much as we have discussed the potential for this kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now.”

Riordan also posted that he had been looking for the best actors to portray the three characters during a yearlong casting process: “This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.”

The Disney+ series will feature Walker Scobell in the title role of 12-year-old Percy, a teen 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 has appeared as Lil Rel Howery’s daughter on Fox comedy “Rel.” Her latest movie, “Beast,” is described as a father’s effort to save his family from a vicious lion in an African game preserve.

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

Jeffries was only 5 when she  appeared on the hit drama “Empire” as the recurring character Lola, who was revealed to be the daughter of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). Before “Empire,” Jeffries did child modeling, including work for children’s products from the Carol’s Daughter brand. 

In 2015, “Empire” casting director Claire Simon praised Jeffries’ performance, telling the Free Press that her character, who was supposed to appear in a couple of episodes, kept getting written into the show.

“Besides the fact that she is absolutely adorable, she had this amazingly charismatic personality,” said Simon.

The principal at Novi Middle School, Robert Baker, describes Jeffries as a student who has “a kind smile on her face all the time, a presence in the hallways that people gravitate to, someone who cares a lot about her friends.”

Baker says Jeffries works with tutors when she’s away from school for acting assignments and maintains “the most positive disposition” when she returns to school and reacclimates to that schedule.

Jeffries also stands out for having “a very strong focus on what it takes to achieve her goals,” according to Baker. “She has a vision for herself and what she wants to do. “

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

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


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