Cleopatra: Black Or Not?

In Netflix’s latest docu-series, the famous Egyptian queen is played by an actress with dark skin. History buffs are not amused and Egyptologists are calling it “black-washing”

British actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in a soon-to-air Netflix series, Screen shot: Netflix/Youtube

The trailer of Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra from the new African Queens docu-series, despite being merely two-minute long, is ruffling more than a few feathers. The titular character, when she first appeared in a green usekh (neckwear), is visibly Black. For many scholars, historians, Egyptians, and Egyptian-royalty buffs, Cleopatra was not. The role of the queen who ruled the land of the pyramids from 51 to 31 B.C., but had eyes on Roman men is played by British actress Adele James. She looks not quite the Cleopatra of popular imagination, darker-skinned than most depicted on the big screen, which is not necessarily objectionable if the general consensus isn’t so skewed towards the belief that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt isn’t as Black as Queen Ramonda of Wakanda. So unacceptable the former’s presently depicted skin colour is that, in Egypt, a lawyer has taken legal action to prevent Netflix from screening the four-parter in his country. Famed Egyptologist and Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs Dr Zahi Hawass waded into the contentious flare-up, responding to the controversial Netflix casting in a Facebook post three days ago, “Cleopatra wasn’t brown… Cleopatra was not black.”

According to Dr Hawass, she “was originally Greek, and if we look at the statues and figures of her father and brother, we will not find any evidence to support this claim [that the queen was black]”. The last queen of Egypt’s ethnicity and skin colour has, for a very long time, been part of the discussion of her identity even if her acumen and achievement left more to history than the melanin in her skin. Most scholars concur that Cleopatra was of Greek-Macedonian stock. Or, southern European, simply out. She was legitimately part of the Macedonian-led Ptolemaic kingdom, an ancient Greek state based in Egypt. Her ancestor Ptolemy I was a general and a bodyguard (some even say “companion”) of Alexander the Great; he began his rule over Egypt after the former’s demise. Ptolemy I died in 282 BC and there was a 200-plus-year gap between then and the time Cleopatra was born. Anything could have happened in that time gap, the Netflix series seems to suggest—it’s hard to say for sure that the Ptolemaic line wasn’t diluted.

In fact, some scholars suggest that the family did not strictly adhere to the Greek-Macedonian pedigree. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was not Black either, but it is not certain he didn’t beget offspring with women who did not share his ethnicity (even when inbreeding was the norm back then and before among the Ptolemaic clan). It is not conclusively known who Cleopatra’s mother or grandmother was (just speculation). Women were not much mentioned, alive or dead, until the rein of Cleopatra (by now VII; yes, there were another six before her—including her supposed mother—named Cleopatra, essentially a Greek moniker, meaning ‘glory of the father’), who was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Supporters of the idea of an ethnically African queen speculated that there could be Black wives or concubines, and, therefore, the possibility of the ruler with Egyptian/African blood coursing through her. But there is nothing that would say conclusively that Cleopatra was a Black African. But, a guest on Queen Cleopatra (which Netflix describes as “the true story”) insists, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”

Adele James as Cleopatra without the royal diadem. Screen shotNetflix/Youtube

But, the producers of Queen Cleopatra, including the wife of an infamous he-who-slaps, Jada Pinkett Smith (who is also the narrator of the series), seem unconcerned that they could be walking on a minefield with their assertion and casting choice. Ms Pinkett Smith said of African Queens, “I really wanted to represent Black women”, as quoted in Tudum, “the companion site to Netflix”. But director Tina Gharavi was more vocal, writing—considerably miffed—in Variety, “the known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family—the Ptolemaic lineage—intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” She did not say who the “known facts” are acknowledged by or who married who that led to a Black Cleopatra, only that “what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress.” While she concurred that, with the skin colour of her subject, “we do not know for sure,” she was proud with “a reimagined Cleopatra”. Defiantly, she added, “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?”

It is almost impossible to portray historical figures accurately—Cleopatra included. No woman would come close to resembling her, even when it can’t be determined how she looked or what her true skin colour was. When Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in 2020 in a still-to-be-titled film (it is still in the making), there was accusations of “white-washing”. She told the BBC at that time: “First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” And she wanted to bring the last of the Ptolemaic ruler in Egypt “to the big screen in a way she’s never been seen before. To tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera”. Similarly, Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra is also a project put together by women, but only now, they believe their royal was “melanated”. Regrettably, there seems to be a defensive, take-it-or-leave-it response on the part of the participants of the docu-series to the casting of the titular role. Adele James, who, like Meghan Markle, is biracial, Tweeted in reaction to the disapproval (some hateful) of her lead role, “If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show”—basically tell those who isn’t on her side to sod off.

Dr Zahi Hawass, careful to add that he was “not anti-black”, was emphatic on Facebook: “she was similar to the queens and princesses of Macedona,” he wrote, adding: “I am not against black people at all but here I am just listing the evidence that Cleopatra was not black at all.” Mr Hawass may have forgotten that we live in an era of a Black Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith in the 2021 TV series of the same name). If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, why not history? Could that be the message of Queen Cleopatra? In an already complex world with different versions of a single truth, a revisionist take of characters of the past seems a consistent order of the day. Sure, we can understand the need for a Black designer at the White-owned Louis Vuitton with a considerably white history, but it is a tad tricky to comprehend Netflix’s commitment to an indisputably dark-skinned actress to take on the role of Cleopatra. In time, we should not be surprised if a Black actress gets to play the lead in the biography of, say, Jane Austin (why couldn’t she have more melanin than Ann Radcliffe, or Mary Shelly?)? And why stop there? Why not Angela Bassett as Wu Zetian (武则天)? We are also not anti-black, and can’t wait for a hei (Black) Yang Guifei (杨贵妃).

One thought on “Cleopatra: Black Or Not?

  1. Pingback: Tina Gharavi: “What Bothers You So Much?” | Style On The Dot

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