Did Netflix Race-Bend Queen Cleopatra? (And Does It Matter?)

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
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Produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, Netflix docudrama African Queens aims to highlight the untold stories of some of the continent’s most powerful female leaders. The second title in the series focuses on the legacy of Cleopatra, the Egyptian pharaoh most famously known in pop culture for being caught in a scandalous love triangle between Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But the ancient queen's salacious scandals don’t even come close to the current controversy stirring about Netflix’s new show, which is rubbing the country of Egypt the wrong way because of its choice to cast a Black woman to play Cleopatra. 
African Queens first premiered in February 2023, highlighting the cultural importance of Queen Nzinga, a powerful woman who ruled the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba (current day northern Angola) in the 17th century. Though the first title in the series was fascinating, it came and went without much fanfare only to be eclipsed by an announcement of its follow-up season. Season two, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, would zero in on the personal and professional struggles of Cleopatra (played by Adele James) during her tumultuous reign over Ptolemaic Egypt. As soon as the early teasers of the second installment were released, the internet — specifically the North African side of it — went wild. Their issue? After years of being portrayed by white women onscreen, Cleopatra is being played by a Black woman.
The docudrama knows exactly what it’s doing, too, twisting the nail deep into the hearts of naysayers in the first minute: “Cleopatra was Black,” asserts Professor Shelley P. Haley. (Spicy!) Reenactments of Cleopatra’s experience and anecdotes from Egyptian studies scholars help paint a clear picture of what life might have been like for the Ptolemaic royal. From the bittersweet circumstances of her ascent to the throne as a teenager to her complicated relationship with the men in her life, Queen Cleopatra puts together the pieces of the iconic queen’s story, featuring a surprising number of Black people around her. 
Given that Egypt is in Africa, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to see Black people in this account — it’s actually kind of a refreshing reminder that Blackness existed in the northern part of the continent. But not everyone feels that way. Disappointingly, much of the public sentiment towards this approach to Egyptian history has been overwhelmingly negative and, less surprisingly, extremely anti-Black.
Like much of the anti-woke ideology that’s fueled outrage against phenomena like Black people’s existence within the fictional Game Of Thrones country of Westeros alongside literal dragons, and even under the sea, the backlash is being masked in faux intellectualism. All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert in Egyptian history, specifically in the Ptolemaic era, and they’re adamant that there’s no way that Cleopatra could have been Black. To be fair, historians have done their best to trace the queen’s bloodline as far as they can, and findings suggest that Cleopatra’s roots are mostly European; the Ptolemies were of Macedonian-Greek ancestry, but some scholars have hinted that they might have also been of Egyptian and Iranian descent as well. (Cleopatra’s specific roots are difficult to confirm because of question marks about the unknown identities of her own mother and her father’s mother.) 
Even with the information that we do have about Cleopatra’s background, we still can’t presume to know exactly what she looked like or how she would’ve identified. Race as we understand it today just didn’t exist thousands of years ago. While prejudices like colorism have always been a thing, the classification and stratification of people by the color of their skin actually started around the time of the European Enlightenment, when philosophers began to rationalize prejudice by way of “science.” Black, white, brown — those identifiers weren’t used during the Ptolemaic era, at least not in the way we understand them today. But as someone born and raised in the sweltering heat of a country almost entirely surrounded by desert, it’s not impossible to suggest that Cleopatra’s skin might’ve been on the more melanated side. She could’ve absolutely looked darker.
That perfectly reasonable caveat isn’t stopping critics of Queen Cleopatra from spiraling online and offline. In addition to a barrage of outraged tweets from Egyptians and self-proclaimed Egyptologists, Cleopatra’s home country has also entered the chat. To counter what some are calling an “Afrocentric agenda,” Al Wathaeqya channel (which is part of the state-affiliated United Media Services) is rushing production on a documentary that it claims will more accurately portray the queen’s legacy. And Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) issued an official statement blasting the Netflix project, emphasizing the “light skin and Hellenistic [Greek] features” seen on ancient bas-reliefs and statues of Cleopatra. 
“The appearance of the heroine is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy,” reads the SCA’s statement. “Especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work, which requires those in charge of its production to investigate the accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified.”
The amount of negativity being lobbed at Queen Cleopatra isn’t surprising, not even to its star Adele James. “If you don’t like the casting, don't watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours,” she tweeted, adding screenshots of some particularly nasty messages against the show. “Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!” 
But we could’ve seen this coming a mile away: the discourse also speaks to a wider conversation about the strained relationship that many North Africans seem to have with Blackness. To the Tunisian president’s blatantly xenophobic comments about Black African refugees and migrants to the systemic oppression of Nubians in Egypt to viral TikToks recalling blatant racist treatment during visits to the region, anti-Blackness has been widely documented in Egypt and neighboring North African countries, and the backlash against Queen Cleopatra falls in line with that sentiment. Ironically enough, there’s a real point to be made about the necessity of intentional MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) representation in mainstream media — the demographic is shamefully underrepresented in modern television and film — but this argument doesn’t evoke that valid point at all. Instead of advocating for more opportunities for MENA actors, much of the outrage is hinged solely on the unthinkable decision to cast a Black woman as Cleopatra. (Curiously, that same insistence upon “accuracy” didn’t seem to apply to any of the countless other depictions of Cleopatra that featured white women. Theda Bara, Elizabeth Taylor, almost Angelina Jolie…where was the vim for any of those inaccurate castings?) 
“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” inquired Queen Cleopatra’s director in an open letter published in Variety. “Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter….Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am okay with this.”
“So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor,” Gharavi continued in the letter.. “We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.
Ultimately, the focus of Queen Cleopatra shouldn’t be on the pharaoh's skin tone or the kink of her hair — we should be more fascinated by the portrayal of her political prowess and leadership over Egypt at a critical point in its timeline. Per its director’s own admission, the project is meant to be a “re-imagining” of Egypt’s history, a feminist celebration of a woman in power whose rule changed everything. Unfortunately, Gharavi's intentions aren’t quite landing; as usual, anti-Blackness is getting in the way.
African Queens: Queen Cleopatra is now streaming, only on Netflix.

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