Between Afrocentrism and Arabness: Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra and the problem of colorism in Hollywood
Netflix’s docuseries Queen Cleopatra has been criticized for casting a black actress to play the Egyptian queen. The platform’s decision to appease Afrocentric beliefs surrounding Cleopatra has brought the issue of colorism back to the forefront.
May 11 Netflix created the new docuseries Queen Cleopatra starring black actress Adele James as the pharaonic queen of Egypt.
The decision to cast a black actress sparked widespread criticism and accusations of falsification of history.
Additionally, it highlighted Hollywood’s double standards when it comes to Arab representationsince Hollywood has become more culturally sensitive over the past decade, but that same treatment has not extended to Arabs.
Conversely, some of the negative reactions the show received from Egyptian and Arab viewers call into question the existence of racial motivations behind their anger.
The racial origin of Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt, still remains a mystery today. However, what has been generally accepted by scholars is that she is of Greek ancestry with Iranian Persian and Sogdian ancestry due to her Macedonian Greek family’s intermarriage with the Seleucid dynasty. It is unlikely that she is black.
Despite this, those interviewed in NetflixThe docuseries confidently claimed that she was. And since the series also included dramatic re-enactments, Hollywood’s Afrocentric approach to African and African-American representation and its history of colorism was put in the spotlight.
Afrocentrism is a pan-African approach to the study of African culture, philosophy and history.
African-American followers of this school of thought believe that their worldview should reflect African values. Criticisms of Hollywood applications of Afrocentrism concern the generalization of African cultures and regions.
In an interview with Piers Morgan, Egyptian journalist and satirist Bassem Youssef highlighted how Queen Cleopatra and the editorial team behind this book failed to distinguish between West African and North African history, as well as ethnicity. He also stressed the importance of respecting ethnicities and the history of civilizations in order to preserve relationships instead of lumping them into one big group.
In an interview with Variety magazine, Tina Gharavi, the director of Queen Cleopatraclaimed that the decision to cast a black actress was intended to correct the course of the whitewashing of Hollywood history and to diversify the story’s image among current and future generations of viewers.
In the same interview, she said that her version of Cleopatra was a reimagined version, which is misleading given that the series is labeled and filmed as a documentary.
Afrocentrism is part of a broader case of Hollywood’s inability to distinguish between people of color. Hollywood is quite often accused of “colorism”, discrimination based on skin color, particularly when they cast an actor of a certain race or ethnicity to play a character or role of a different race.
This also applies to lighter-toned African-American actors getting more roles than those with darker tones. Popular examples include the wonder Characters Storm, fictionally of Kenyan origin, with dark skin, played by biracial actresses Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp in the live-action X-Men films and The Ancient One, who fictionally comes from somewhere around the Himalayas, played by white actress Tilda Swinton.
What is called into question due to Queen Cleopatra The controversy is that Hollywood is casting actors of color to play characters of a different “color”, specifically Arab.
An example of this is Oscar Isaac, a Latino actor, who plays the X-Men the villain Apocalypse and the titular hero in Marvel Moon Knight. Although the fictional origins of these two characters vary throughout their publication history and are not necessarily or explicitly Arab, it makes canonical sense that they would be and would have been an appropriate venue for Arab representation, an area where Marvel has underperformed in many areas. so far, but they chose to hire Isaac instead despite no character having ever been portrayed as Latino in the comics or in live action.
In fact, describing them as Arabs would have been an act of correction for the whitewashing committed in the past.
False Arab declaration
Although it did not cast an Arab for the lead role, Marvel’s Knight of the Moon have taken many positive steps in their attempt at Arab representation. They had a primarily Arab production team including Egyptian writer and director Mohamed Diab and Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy as the first Arab superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The scarlet beetle.
That being said, for a series centered around Egyptology and set in Egypt for a good number of episodes, the main cast was desperately lacking more actors from the Middle East and North Africa.
Additionally, the entire series contained only a handful of Arabic words and expressions, whereas much of the dialogue in Marvel’s film Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, released the previous year, was in Mandarin Chinese. This demonstrates that less effort has been devoted to Arab representation.
Another big-budget Hollywood production starring Oscar Isaac was 2021’s Dune.
The popular film starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. The book is based on Islamic theology, mysticism and history of the Arab world and the film uses explicit Islamic imagery and cultural elements, but the main cast does not include any actors from the Middle East or North Africa.
One of the most important figures in the world of Dune is the Mahdi, also known as “Lisan al-Gaib” or “Voice of the Outside World”. A character so explicitly influenced by Shiite theology and yet the role of the character believed to be the “Mahdi” was given to Timothée Chalamet, a French-American actor.
Additionally, the character who confronted him about these suspicions was played by Zendaya, who couldn’t even pronounce the name “Mahdi” correctly. In fact, no character in the film was able to correctly pronounce an Arabic word such as “Mahdi” or “Lisan al-Gaib.”
In many cases, when people attempt to call out colorism or misrepresentations of a group in television or film, their critics arm themselves with the argument that an actor’s job description should allow them to to play any role.
In the same Piers Morgan interview with Bassem Youssef, Morgan gave examples of Hollywood misrepresentations, such as Bryan Cranston playing a disabled character in The advantage and Eddie Redmayne playing a transgender woman in The Danish girlthen apparently mockingly giving the example of Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead role in Prince of Persia despite not being Persian “nor a prince”.
These critics fail to see the value of accurate representation and the influence it can have on the audiences they are trying to represent, particularly when those audiences are marginalized groups who still face stereotypes in their representations on the screen. These critics are often individuals who have rarely been the subject of misrepresentation in the past. Piers Morgan is a good example; white men have never been victims of misrepresentation in Hollywood.
Racism in Arab media
Hollywood has no shortage of cases of Arab misrepresentation and colorism.
However, a quick glance at certain productions from the Arab world reveals that racism has indeed always been present on our screens.
Productions littered with mockery and derogatory remarks against Black Arabs and black African migrants have become so normalized that they often go unnoticed.
The Egyptian comedy series Azmi we Ashgan (Azmi and Ashgan) had the lead actors frequently don blackface throughout their run and portray black people as illiterate servants. The Kuwaiti comedy series Block Ghashmara (The Block of Jokes) had an entire episode about lazy, cynical Sudanese people, played by actors in blackface.
Racism is sometimes presented in more subtle ways through throwaway lines masked as jokes with characters laughing after hearing them.
Criticism and discussion regarding racism in Arab production is generally limited to social media but fails to create a society-wide debate. Of course, the fact that Arab and Egyptian productions are racist and misrepresent black and African people does not excuse Queen Cleopatra or any other Hollywood production.
This, however, calls into question whether the outrage against Queen Cleopatra being bigger and louder than any previous case of Arab misrepresentation is the result of racial discrimination against black people.
During his interview with VarietyGharavi pointed out how the 2005 HBO TV show Rome starred Cleopatra played by white English actress Lyndsey Marshal and portrayed Cleopatra as “a sleazy, dissipated drug addict”, but there was no widespread outrage or criticism from Egyptians (or Arabs).
Conversely, Queen Cleopatra was the subject of a lawsuit filed by Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary to stop production after the trailer was released.
After its release, the series was the subject of a second lawsuit from the legal advisor and lawyer of the Minister of Culture, Essam Khalaf, demanding that the series be permanently removed from the market. Netflix under the pretext of not “obtaining approval from the Ministries of Antiquities and Culture regarding the incarnation of an Egyptian historical figure, and of not obtaining permission to film works containing archaeological elements in Egypt”.
Furthermore, both Khalaf and the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri, considered this depiction an insult and a falsification of Egyptian history.
While it is true that Hollywood has started to move away from stereotypes and portray Arab actors and actresses solely as terrorist men and helpless women, it still has a long way to go to achieve true representation. Arab.
While the indignation towards Queen Cleopatra Perhaps the culmination of a long history of misrepresentation and not just racial discrimination, Egyptian and Arab filmmakers, particularly those who have exceptionally spoken out against casting decisions in Queen Cleopatramust also begin to practice proper representation and challenge the racist stereotypes they incorporate into their productions.
Mahdi El Amin is a Lebanese writer and activist