Who is the director pushing for a Black Cleopatra?
Not many people have heard of the name Tina Gharavi until now. In the wake of the questionable casting of the up-coming Netflix docu-series Queen Cleopatra, Ms Gharavi is thrust into the public eye, especially after she penned an “exclusive” for the Variety, doubling down on the producers’ decision to cast dark-skinned, bi-racial, British actress Adele James as the titular queen and what she sees as her (“melanated”?) truth. Perhaps Ms James playing the Macedonian-Greek queen would not have aroused this much controversy if the Neftlix show is not touted as a “docudrama featuring reenactments and expert interviews” that included an unidentified individual who does not “care what they tell you in school”. Many consider a documentary—even dramatised—to veer to the side of established truth, but Netflix prefers that it “shows a side of the infamous royal you haven’t seen before”—a queen that Ms Ghavari describes as Black. She rebukes those who do not agree, “what bothers you so much about a Black Cleopatra?” Strangely, Netflix would not allow the viewers of the trailer to answer that question. On YouTube, it had the comment option turned off.
The streaming platform has not responded to the casting controversy either, but Tina Gharavi was quick to hit back at those who do not concur with her position on her subject’s skin colour, insisting that “it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did”. In a laughable introduction to her Variety piece, the British-American Iranian director, who is based on both sides of the Atlantic, in Newcastle and Los Angeles, claimed that a “fortune teller” told her—“ever the sceptic but game for a laugh”—that she shares Cleopatra’s story and both “are connected”. The connection was established, as the seer foretold, when, a month later, the production company behind Queen Cleopatra called, and she was offered the directing job. “The joke”, she wrote, was on her. Perhaps, more than that, by regaling the reader with her exposure to such colourful divination, she was possibly also illustrating the triumph of oracular utterance and wishful thinking.
There is another connection. Ms Ghavari helpfully establishes that, born in Iran, she is Persian. She asserts that Cleopatra’s “heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians.” There is clearly kinship here, and, therefore, “why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” Like she is? (She’d have you know “that Persians have a long, long history of female warriors,” as she once told Primetime.) Cultural and visual evidence, as cited by historians and Egyptologists (including Dr Zahi Hawass), be damned. I want her black! Ms Ghavari asked: “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” Similarly, why does she need Cleopatra to be Black? Might she desire Joan of Arc, someone she’s “particularly inspired by” to be Black, too? She gleefully applies another wonky reasoning for her conclusion that the queen cannot be of a lighter skin colour: “Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” Can the obsession for a Black Cleopatra distance one from thinking with a rational basis? If she is right, are the hans (汉人), for example, many more generations later, less Chinese than their ancestors? Or, “somewhat unlikely”?
Of the choice of the lead, Ms Gharavi writes, “we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength.” The Greek biographer Plutarch was less complementary when it came to how the ruler looked. Writing a century after the queen’s demise, he said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her”. Team Queen Cleopatra would probably call that misogynistic. To Ms Ghravari, it would be “misogynoir”—her preferred charge, assuming she is right about Cleopatra being discernibly Black. We try not to connect this forcefulness of her thought to wokeness (essentially an African-American alertness), but it is hard not to when she is adamant that “we need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.” Create! Does that mean she can delineate those historical figures as she pleases, let them evolved from her impassioned imagination, independent of established scholarship?
Tina Gharavi was born in Tehran in 1972, a month after Nixon visited the capital—the first time in thirteen years that a U.S. president stepped on Iranian soil. At age 6, in the year of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she left her homeland to join her father in Loughborough, England. Her parents were divorced then. She revealed to her mom in her second documentary Mother/Country (2002), “You don’t understand how hard it was for me to grow up without my mother.” It is not known if she still carries that baggage with her or if it shapes her approach to making documentaries or how she sees her subjects. She calls herself “a citizen of everywhere” (on Twitter she is “stateless”), and claims to carry “no less than four passports”. She has lived in the UK, New Zealand, France, and the US, where she attended high school in New Jersey. Trained as a painter at Rutgers University initially, she continued her studies in film at Le Fresnoy, a “post-graduate art and audio-visual research centre” (in Northern France), as the school describes itself. It was during this time, when she was offered a residency position in the institution in 2000 that her first documentary Closer—a script-less portrait of a 17-year-old lesbian from Newcastle—was made. The biggest acknowledgement of her work came when she was nominated for a BAFTA in 2014 for I am Nasrine, a docu-feature about a pair of brother-and-sister immigrants from, unsurprisingly, Iran, and their life in the UK.
In a 2013 interview with film festival organiser Birds Eye View, Tina Gharavi said that her early attempts with film work “slowly became documentary and then documentary with fiction and now it’s fiction with some documentary.” She reiterated that equation to Zanan TV two years later, saying, “I make documentaries and fiction films; I have actually managed to combine both.” It can be said that with Queen Cleopatra, she demonstrated that skill—described as “cross-platform”, as well as showed that “people have been thought to fear Blackness”. Additionally, Ms Gharavi said she could care less in appealing to the “intellectual documentary” audience. “I’m not interested in objectivity,” she stressed. “In fact, I’m more interested in making sure my subjectivity is clear, and really pronounced. I want to tell people who I am when I am making a film. From your privilege comes subjectivity. When I teach documentary film-making… I say to students, ‘You, know, it is all fiction’.” Now, we do. Queen Cleopatra isn’t revisionist; it’s just a tale.
Illustration: Just So
Pingback: Watched: Queen Cleopatra | Style On The Dot