Earlier this year, Netflix’s four-part documentary series, ‘Queen Cleopatra,’ found itself at the center of a heated debate surrounding the casting of Cleopatra herself. The series, a part of the African Queens series, aims to investigate the life of the Egyptian ruler. The show is narrated by actor Jada Pinkett Smith, who expressed her desire to “represent Black women.”1 The controversy stems from the portrayal of Cleopatra by biracial actor Adele James, sparking discussions about Cleopatra’s racial identity and historical accuracy.
The Casting Debate and Cleopatra Representation
Jada Pinkett Smith, also the show’s producer, aimed to use ‘Queen Cleopatra’ to provide representation as stories about Black queens are often overlooked. Smith also highlighted the historical significance of Black women who were powerful and instrumental in African nations, expressing the need for their stories to be heard. However, the casting choice has drawn criticism and sparked a larger conversation about the racial identity of the real-life Cleopatra.
Egyptian Backlash and Cultural Appropriation Concerns
When the trailer was released, a wave of criticism came, primarily from Egyptians who felt that the series was appropriating their culture and rewriting their history.2 Egyptians argued that Cleopatra, being portrayed by a Black woman, was historically inaccurate. According to Egypt’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass, Cleopatra was of Greek origin and light-skinned. Some Egyptians viewed the casting decision as an attempt to “blackwash” their history and voiced concerns about non-Egyptians claiming Egyptian heritage.
The controversy heated up online with harassment and racism directed at Adele James. Sharing screenshots of the abusive messages she received on Twitter, James took a stand against the negativity, stating that such behavior would not be tolerated. She encouraged those who disagreed with the casting to choose not to watch the show and engage in respectful discussions rather than resorting to hate.
Historical Debates and Perspectives on Cleopatra’s Identity
The debate surrounding Cleopatra’s racial identity has been ongoing for centuries. Netflix acknowledges the controversy and highlight Cleopatra’s heritage, noting that during her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial, with speculation about her being either a native Egyptian woman or Greek. The broadcaster emphasized that the casting choice was a nod to the centuries-long conversation about Cleopatra’s race.
Academics have weighed in on the debate, offering differing perspectives. Sally Ann Ashton, an academic interviewed for the series, argued that if Cleopatra identified herself as an Egyptian, contemporary representation should reflect her potential African heritage. She emphasized that Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa and that if the maternal side of her family had indigenous women, they would have been African, which should be reflected in the show.
Cleopatra from Other Sources
While the controversy primarily revolves around historical accuracy and cultural appropriation, it also touches on broader themes of representation and identity. Critics argue that accurate portrayals in historical dramas, especially in documentary formats, are essential to ensure the preservation of history and avoid the distortion of civilizations – which is a weak argumument at best when you look back on Hollywood’s former portrayals of Asian roles.3 However, others contend that the ancient world was diverse, and applying modern racial categories to historical figures is anachronistic.4 They emphasize that the focus should be on Cleopatra’s accomplishments as a powerful ruler rather than her racial identity.
Furthermore, the controversy surrounding ‘Queen Cleopatra’ reflects broader discussions about representation in the media and the importance of diverse storytelling. The casting of Adele James provides an opportunity for underrepresented communities to see themselves reflected in historical narratives, promoting inclusivity and challenging traditional narratives that have perpetuated racial stereotypes.
The controversy surrounding Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ series highlights the complexities of representing historical figures and the ongoing debates surrounding Cleopatra’s racial identity. Casting a biracial actress as Cleopatra has sparked backlash, particularly from Egyptians who argue for historical accuracy and the protection of their cultural heritage. However, the lack of conclusive evidence about Cleopatra’s lineage leaves room for interpretation and invites discussions about representation and the diversity of ancient civilizations. As the series releases, how the controversy will shape the perception and reception of ‘Queen Cleopatra’ and future historical portrayals in the media remains to be seen.
- “Netflix sparks debate in Egypt after portraying Cleopatra as Black in series narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith.” Independent. Isobel Lewis. April 21, 2023.
- “Why some Egyptians are fuming over Netflix’s Black Cleopatra.” CBS News. Ahmed Shawkat and Tucker Reals. May 9, 2029.
- “How Hollywood Cast White Actors in Caricatured Asian Roles.” History. Thaddeus Morgan. May 5, 2023.
- “Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Controversy, Explained.” Forbes. Dani Di Placido. May 2023.