Netflix accused of “Blackwashing” docudrama “Queen Cleopatra”

Netflix’s upcoming docudrama “Queen Cleopatra” – the second in the “African Queens” series of historical projects – has sparked outrage across Egypt over its casting of a biracial actor to play the titular role of Cleopatra.

British actor Adele James, who is dark-skinned and of mixed heritage, plays the first-century Egyptian ruler as a queen with African heritage, much to the dismay of archaeologists, academics, legal experts and online critics.

This isn’t the first time debates have arisen over how Cleopatra should be represented on screen. When Israeli actor Gal Gadot was announced to be playing Cleopatra in a historical drama feature now being directed by Kari Skogland, many naysayers claimed the role should go to an Arab or African actor instead. The Guardian’s Hanna Flint called the casting decision “a backwards step for Hollywood representation,” while director Lexi Alexander said a Black actor should be cast, per a 2020 BBC report.

As for James’ casting, the recent debate is showing people’s anti-Black sentiments, although they hide behind cries of historical accuracy. For the record, there has been no conclusive evidence as to the queen’s race or skin color. “Queen Cleopatra,” executive produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, who told Tudum that the creative choice to cast a biracial actor “is a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.”

“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!” she said. “The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”

Here’s a closer look at the Cleopatra race controversy along with the outrage surrounding James’ casting and one lawyer’s call to get Netflix blocked in Egypt.

The divisive discourse on Cleopatra’s race

Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and served as the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was founded by a Macedonian Greek general named Ptolemy I Soter. Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was a king of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and undoubtedly of European descent. However, the identity of her mother still remains a great mystery to this day. That’s why many historians have speculated that Cleopatra is mixed race based on reconstructions of her face from images on ancient artifacts.

“Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems strange to insist on depicting her as wholly European,” Sally Ann Ashton, an expert who was interviewed in the docudrama, told Tudum. “Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women, they would’ve been African, and this should be reflected in contemporary representations of Cleopatra.”

A 2009 BBC documentary that highlighted the remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe suggested that her mother had an “African” skeleton.

“That Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe,” said Austrian Academy of Sciences archaeologist Hilke Thuer, who made the discovery.

The outrage surrounding James’ casting

Not all academics, however, are convinced that Cleopatra is mixed race. 

Following last week’s trailer release for “Queen Cleopatra,” Zahi Hawass, a renowned Egyptian archaeologist and Egyptologist, told Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al-Youm that Cleopatra being Black “is completely fake.”

“Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black,” he said, per the BBC’s translation. “Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is Black.”

On Twitter, critical Netizens voiced similar sentiments, albeit more harshly, and targeted James:

“But Cleopatra was a queen and not a slave, so why is the actress black when she was originally a white Greek Cleopatra?” asked one anonymous user. “Why are you stealing the identity and civilizations of other countries? I pity you.” Another commenter used a racial slur and also claimed Black people were “tryna black wash everything just to steal our history! that’s so pathetic . . . And Cleopatra?? Seriously?? She wasn’t even Egyptian she was Ptolemaic lol.”

James later addressed the comments, saying: “Just FYI, this kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my account. You will be blocked without hesitation!!! If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”

Also jumping on the hate train was conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who said, “If we’re just going to do race neutral casting on everything I’m here for it. Fine, alright, that’s cool. But that also means that Ryan Gosling needs to be up for Martin Luther King.”

Netflix faces lawsuit over “Queen Cleopatra”

Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud Al-Sedary reportedly filed a complaint alleging that the docudrama violates the country’s media laws. According to the BBC, Al-Sedary said Netflix “promotes Afrocentric thinking . . . which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity” and asked that the streaming giant be blocked across the country.

“Queen Cleopatra” is premieres May 10 on Netflix. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube:

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