Was Queen Cleopatra of Egypt black?
It’s the very controversial question around Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra,” a documentary drama series about the pharaonic ruler narrated and produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. And the show’s director had some choice words Friday about the racist and colorist backlash she received for casting a black actor as the titular queen, a decision she made after decades of academic discourse about the enigmatic roots of Cleopatra.
“After 300 years, we can surely say with certainty that Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both belong to a generation originating from Greece,” wrote filmmaker Tina Gharavi in an essay for Variety. “While doing my research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra played by a black actress. For me, the idea that people have been wrong before – historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie And Gal Gadot in the running to play it – that meant we had to get it even better.
The series, which mixes dramatic reenactments and expert interviews, portrays the queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt as black with mixed-race British actress Adele James. The casting was “a nod to the age-old conversation about leader race,” according to Netflix’s companion website, Tudum, and the series is the second installment of the streamer’s look at the lives of prominent and iconic African queens. (Season 1 focused on the 7th century warrior Queen Njingawho ruled areas in what is now Angola.)
But since the casting announcement in February and this month’s trailer Ahead of the series’ premiere on May 10, the production faced significant criticism and allegations of “blackwashing” and “stealing” from Egypt’s ancient history, with prominent Egyptians accusing the series of revisionism historical.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, renowned Egyptologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities of the country, told Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that the idea that Cleopatra was black is “completely false.”
“Cleopatra was Greek, which means she was light-skinned, not black,” he said, objecting to black Americans who claimed that Egyptian civilization was black in origin.
He said the only Egyptian rulers known to have been black are the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC), and he accused Netflix of “trying to cause confusion by broadcasting false and misleading facts that the origin of Egyptian civilization”. is black.”
Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary also filed a complaint with Egypt’s attorney general demanding that Netflix be blocked in the North African country over its promotion of “Afrocentric thinking” including “slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing Egyptian identity.”
“Most of what the Netflix platform displays is not in line with Islamic and societal, particularly Egyptian, values and principles,” he said in the complaint, according to Independent Egypt.
The trailer reportedly sparked so much hate on YouTube that Netflix had to disable comments on the video, and series star James took to Twitter last week to take a stand against some of the hateful messages she received : “If you don’t like the casting, feel free to do so. I don’t watch the show,” she wrote.
All of this seemed to prompt Gharavi, a Sundance and BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, to enter the speech Friday.
“Why wouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? His proximity to whiteness seems to give him value, and for some Egyptians this seems really important,” the Persian director writes in the essay.
Gharavi defended James’ casting by saying that historians can confirm that “it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor.” Taylor notably played the Queen in the United States in the 1963 Oscar-winning epic directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Gharavi argued that “we need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”
Cleopatra, the last queen of a Greek-speaking dynasty founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy, was born in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria in 69 BC. Egyptologists have confirmed that she was Macedonian-Greek on the side of her father, Ptolemy XII, but her maternal heritage is less clear because little is known about her biological mother’s ethnicity. Historians have said it was possible that she, or any other female ancestor, was a native Egyptian or from elsewhere in Africa, depending on the BBC.
Gharavi posited that Cleopatra, who succeeded her father in 51 BC. and reigned until his death in 30 BC.
In an attempt to tell the ruler’s story with humanism and nuance, Gharavi argued that “the last thing we needed was another Cleopatra divorced from her femininity and uniquely sexualized power.”
«The (2005) HBO series “Rome” portrays one of the most intelligent, sophisticated, and powerful women in the world as a sleazy, dissipated drug addict, and yet Egypt doesn’t seem to care. Where was the outrage then? But describing her as black? GOOD. …Maybe it’s not just because I made a series that portrayed Cleopatra as black, but also because I asked Egyptians to think of themselves as Africans, and they are furious with me for that. I agree with that.”
Representatives for Netflix declined to comment further when contacted by The Times on Friday.
The series debuts on the platform just days after “Bridgerton” prequel “Queen Charlotte” began streaming. This project, although a fictional Regency drama, is also about a ruler believed to have black roots and played by a black artist.
In a Statement of April 12Pinkett Smith said she wanted to find stories that would inspire her daughter, Willow.
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens, and this was really important for me, as well as my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know these stories because it there are tons of them. Pinkett Smith told Tudum. “The sad thing is that we don’t have easy access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbone of African nations.”
The producers worked with Cleopatra expert Dr Sally-Ann Ashton on the project to “explore Cleopatra’s story as a queen, strategist (and) ruler of formidable intellect”.
“Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we intentionally decided to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt” , they said.
“Given that Cleopatra presents herself as an Egyptian, it seems odd to insist on portraying her as entirely European,” said Ashton, who was interviewed for the series.