What’s with the ’70s disco make-up?
“There was a time long ago when women ruled with unparalleled power… Cleopatra walked through the sandstorm of history and left footprints so deep that no man could ever erase them (never mind that no man could get to those footprints, if they’re still there, in a sandstorm).” That’s how Netflix presents the epilogue to the documentary series Queen Cleopatra. It is narrated by executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, no less. This is not just illustrating the power of the famed ruler of Egypt, but also the power of the production team that could come up with a “re-imagined Cleopatra”, as director Tina Gharavi huffed in Variety. In order to sit through this, we thought it is best to ignore the controversial casting of the lead and look at the dramatic aspects of the docu-drama. Queen Cleopatra is not an Egyptian Bridgerton, nor a Timeline feature. The story of the short life of the last pharaoh of Egypt is part Nat-Geo, part Animax. Much of the “factual photography” could have come out of something from the History Channel. And the repeated use of massive intertitles (not just the tittle) in bold, san-serif font denoting place and time that stretch across the screen has a cartoonish quality about it. If this is “fiction with some documentary”, as Ms Gharavi once described her work, it really is a mishmash that would be better aligned with MTV. The connection became stronger when current pop—such as Unbreathable by Konstantine Pope (and company) and Set the World Alight by Nick Evans and Jake Shillingford—are used in the soundtrack instead of Egyptian music, even if modern.
Much of what is revealed does not add to what we already know about the amorous and power-seeking queen. The script of the dramatised enactment is so weak—bordering on the trite, in fact—that it was near-torture even to get to the end of the first episode of the four-parter. From the second, the story became draggy. The continual need to prove and tell—and tell—that “I-want-it-all” Cleopatra, “mother to a nation of millions” (and after her liaison with Julius Caesar, became “mother of two nations”), was formidable became really tiring. While it is likely that this is a show by women for women, portraying a queen to be more than queenly is just going for the unnecessarily exaggerated. Queen Cleopatra not only emphasised the pharaoh’s qualities, but it also particularised her abilities—in addition to being “a leader of undeniable power no one could ignore” and “first and foremost, a scholar, she was a scientist, she was a linguist” and a host of other selves that qualify as comic-book super, she is seen as a swordswoman and a falconer! And, more importantly, one who is able bear the excruciation of childbirth (such high threshold for pain she has that they have to show her screaming at two deliveries of three pregnancies, the last resulting in twins). Agonizing labour contractions put her above even the most of powerful fellows of her time: “Women must face dangers no man ever will”, Ms Pinkett Smith’s narration reminds us.
Unsurprisingly, much of the depictions of key characters are seen through feminist lens. Of the half dozen guest commentators, only one is a guy—a token representation in the presence of the British-Egyptian doctor of philosophy of English literature (and TV personality) Islam Issa, who explored what he called “my version” of the last pharaoh’s story in the 2019 BBC documentary Cleopatra and Me: In Search of a Lost Queen. Expectedly there is no White male expert on the panel. Their scholarship is likely not crucial in this reimagined Netflix docu-series. Because in this day, post-BLM, no one cares what a White man says? While Mr Issa, who attributed the “misrepresentation of Cleopatra in the West” to William Shakespeare in Cleopatra and Me, was emphatic in the documentary he hosted that Cleopatra was “exoticised and sexualised”, Ms Pinkett Smith’s telling still showed the queen willing to use her sexuality, “strategically”. To be sure, they try to play down her reputation as a seductress—there is nothing terribly erotic about the meetings-that-lead-to-sex with the two Roman generals thought to be besotted with her—but there are scenes of her in bed, post-coital, totally naked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the men are delineated to be incredibly lame. They are practically useless. This is all about Cleopatra. So even if she could not have become who she is or desires without them, the guys have to appear less able, less determined, less strategic. While she is the “mother of two nations” (and “the earthly embodiment of divine motherhood”) after her not-that-torrid affairs, the two men she sleeps with are mere “sons of Rome”. Julius Caesar is weak, a much disliked statesman, waiting to be executed. Mark Antony is lame, although battleground-hardened, and is not as strong as Cleopatra. Both men are not as financially-endowed as she is. In her court, Pothinus, who turns her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIII against his sister, “wants to be the real power. Cleopatra stands in the way” and that is all he is. And Julius Caesar’s heir-apparent, his grand-nephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus, who would become emperor) does not even speak, until the second half of the last episode. He conquers Egypt in the end, but is not seen conquering. He does not confront his nemesis Mark Antony, only Cleopatra. At his first encounter with the pharaoh, he allows her to belittle him—“You’re a lot shorter than I thought you’d be.” (To be fair, he insulted her first, calling her a “witch”.) Even the well-known orator and writer Cicero is no match for Cleopatra, who Mark Antony in episode one describes as “someone who bested Cicero”, leaving you in no doubt that the African queen is an intellectual.
If they have taken liberties with the Cleopatra’s story (as Netflix warns, “some of the characters and situations have been altered for dramatisation purposes”), they certainly have with the costume too. Some reviewers describe what Cleopatra has on in the series as “sumptuous”. This does not say that the wardrobe is true-to-life. One white linen pleated two-piece that she wears (or is shown in) with considerable frequency has aesthetic similarities to what Sacai produces, in particular the asymmetric wrap and drape of the pleating. We sense that the costume is not important in the telling of the story of a philosopher and intellectual, as she has better things to worry about than her clothes. In fact, as a Queen, she does not seem to have that many outfits to wear or to parade in (about a dozen sets for a four-episode series), even if no one is asking for the 65 costume changes in Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of her in the 1963 movie of the (thought-to-be-fashionable) pharaoh. For her coronation, Cleopatra wears a not-quite-regal, V-necked, caped linen dress, which is also the garment she chooses when she travels to Thebes to celebrate the installation of the new Buchis bull (representing the war god Monty). If the real Cleopatra controlled her public image, as it is often said of her, it is hard to imagine that she did not use clothes to augment the power she supposedly wanted to secure.
For her first meeting with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra appears in his chamber in what looks like a dirty sack, not—as has been told in the popular version—wrapped in a carpet. She wears a loose, white, opaque dress (like a column) that is held up by a some kind of neckwear, although in episode two, Caesar tells her, “you were naked, I was distracted”. It is hard to see the distraction as Cleopatra does not seem to have spent much time in prettifying herself to seduce the most powerful man of the Roman empire then. After Caesar reinstalls her as the pharaoh, she appears among her courtiers in the series’ most elaborate get-up, with a long, decorated train that would not be out of place on the red carpet of the Met Gala. When she first meets Mark Antony in Tarsus (present-day southern Turkey)—entering the “port city in the most lavish ship ever created”, as guest Egyptologist Colleen Darnell tells it—she “dresses herself like the goddess Venus”, although in other accounts, the historical queen wore costume to appear as Isis, supposedly with eye-catching young men fanning her as she received the important guest. But in the show’s pivotal moment, she makes herself alluring in a large usekh or bib necklace overwhelming a bra top and diaphanous layers below that. (There is, curiously, virtually no close-up of her clothes, even when she appears as a goddess.) While it is said that Cleopatra brought together both Egyptian and Greek or Roman looks and details to her fashion choices, she tended to keep to what was unique to each national style depending on which side of the Mediterranean sea she was. Yet, in Queen Cleopatra, she could look un-Egyptian if she chooses to, even when in Alexandria. We see that fashion is mostly secondary to her power as the mighty ruler.
Although the Cleopatra of antiquity was known for her beauty rituals, the series chooses not to dwell on such frivolous pursuits. Rather, it is better to show her abilities in armed combat and her skill as a military strategist (so that she could pull out her naval support of Mark Antony when she thinks he is losing the Battle of Actium?) than the flawlessness of her skin. There is no beauty regime (she is seen to take a bath once, before her suicide). Seeing her go through childbirth is more compelling than being privy to her putting on make-up, or a lady-in-waiting doing it for her (her afro-textured hair is teased just once). Egyptian women of the Pharaonic era were known to love their cosmetic pigments, often ground from minerals such as azurite for the blue, but, while some colour were bright, they were not glittery as seen in what the queen wears in the series. Cleopatra might be meeting her lover of the moment, but she could well be made-up to go to the some Mediterranean Studio 54! She was also known to love perfume, but the scriptwriters prefer not to show their Queen dab any. None of her lovers who get physical with her comment on how marvelous she smells. Or how lovely it is to caress her skin. According to Islam Issa in Cleopatra and Me, it was the moderns who “projected… Western beauty ideals” on her. Just as Netflix projected the producers’ racial/ethnic ideals on her?
No historian is able to be sure if Cleopatra was truly beautiful, even for the standards of the time. The Greek philosopher Plutarch claimed, possibly speculatively, that “those who had seen Cleopatra knew that neither in youthfulness nor in beauty was she superior to Octavia (Mark Antony’s Roman wife and the sister of Octavian)”, who appears in the show fleetingly. Yet, Shakespeare wrote that “for her own person, it beggared all description.” For Queen Cleopatra, beauty is not part of the equation of her allure. We’re led to believe that Cleopatra’s appeal to Roman men—generals, in particular—is not due to her beauty, but the fact that she is “unlike Roman women, who traditionally are expected to stay at home and not take part in political affairs, Cleopatra was a world leader, and Julius Caesar can speak of his military campaigns, of literature, philosophy, on almost equal terms.” But before all that serious chatter, surely there must be physical attraction? The series also does not say what Cleopatra thinks of her own appearance, even when she does pick up a mirror to look at herself at one point. Or, if she considers herself beautiful or is delighted when told so. But as Octavian tells her spitefully when her end is near, “The talk of your beauty flatters you, immensely.”
“Few knew the woman, her truth,” Jada Pinkett Smith tells us. But what is indeed Cleopatra’s truth? Could her truth be incompatible with the truth? Much of the telling in Queen Cleopatra is based on we-don’t-know-but positioning. “We don’t know her exact racial heritage; we don’t know who Cleopatra’s mother was. There’s been a lot of research to prove that her mother was Egyptian, but we can’t know for sure,” says Shelly P. Haley, retired professor of Africana studies and classics, whose grandmother (now) famously said to her, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.” She does not say how is it that her grandmother could be so sure, or who told the old lady. So, for Jada Pinkett Smith and Tina Ghavari, as the latter wrote in Variety in response to the show’s casting backlash, it was an opportunity 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.” That not-quite-evident complexity, strangely, includes portraying Cleopatra’s offsprings as dark-as-the-mother, even when the procreation involved visibly fair-skinned men, and, perhaps as rejection of past delineations, not depicting her too much as a sexually appealing and active woman. Even after she (likely) had sex with Mark Antony in Tarsus, where they first met, Colleen Darnell tells us that Cleopatra “entertains” him. A powerful woman’s fertility is to be celebrated (she becomes the mother of the land), but her sexuality, not so much. “What is a pharaoh?”, Ms Pinkett Smith asks. “She is the sands and the skies and everything in between.”
That world-between they created is marginally evocative of ancient Egypt (or perhaps ancient Alexandria, the queen’s seat of power) and Rome, although there is virtually no wide-angled shots of the hub cities. Strangely, in the Saharan heat of Egypt, Cleopatra’s attendants are not seen fanning her, but while waiting for Caesar in Rome, she is kept cool with the waving of a feathered fan. It is not clear either what a British actress speaking American English says about an ancient Egyptian (let’s put Macedonian-Greek aside for now), but the scriptwriters for the enactment seem to get quite a kick out using phrases and words that social media users can relate to (“okay” is especially jarring). And Cleopatra as a teenager learning in a library while eating a piece of fruit will no doubt appeal to TikTokers who enjoy speaking to their rabid audiences while doing something—anything. There are also her “trusted confidantes”, Charmion and Iras (Ms Haley tells us, “often scholars don’t realise how important they were to Cleopatra”) constantly looking like bridesmaids, but are more like girlfriend, BFFs. The three even die together, on the Queen’s bed. As with her ethnicity, the true cause of her death is uncertain. Ms Haley says, “We do not know the method with which Cleopatra committed suicide.” So it is death by date, the fruit. It is not, as the popular telling of her death goes, because of the bite of an asp (Egyptian cobra).
While Queen Cleopatra tries to portray the last pharaoh as an able and admirable woman, it does not, surprisingly, make her very likeable. She does not speak to those around her nicely and she seems to be in a perpetual state of frustration and acrimony. She even has her siblings killed. The two main men in her life die tragically after they meet and bed her. From this part of the world, she might be seen as a 扫把星 (saobaxing or the star of ill luck that also brings misfortunes to others around them). “She was using these relationships strategically in order to elevate her own status,” we are told. That sounds startlingly selfish, more so when the Netflix Cleopatra stresses that she is “mistress of the true land” and “queen of kings”, egotistical oomph intact. Before she kills herself to avoid her fate in the hands of Octavian, she rejects the Roman soldiers who are sent to capture her, and hits back defiantly, “I’m a god. Do not disrespect me.” We already did, four episodes earlier.
Screen shots: Netflix