Cleopatra wasn't black, Egypt tells Netflix ahead of new series

CAIRO — Egypt has accused Netflix misrepresent history by casting a black woman in the role of Cleopatra, its most famous historical figure, in a new series.

Queen Cleopatra, out May 10, stars Adele James, a casting decision by the streaming giant says is “an allusion to the centuries-old debate about the ruler’s race,” but has been dismissed by Cairo officials as a “blatant historical fallacy.”

The government statement released on Thursday marked an escalation of a feud that has sparked calls for the show to be canceled amid a broader debate over representation in popular culture.

The eight-part docudrama is executive produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith.

However, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities argued that the documentary nature of the feature film “requires those responsible for production to check accuracy and to rely on historical and scientific facts”.

Coins and statues from this period depict a fair-skinned woman, consistent with Cleopatra’s Macedonian-Greek descent, it said.

dr Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in the statement that Cleopatra’s appearance on the show was a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy”.

He added that his complaint was “far from any ethnic racism” and emphasized full respect for African civilizations and for our brothers on the African continent that brings us all together.

The portrayal of historical figures on screen has fueled heated debates around the world, but especially in a country with as rich a history as Egypt, whose ancient past has become a large part of its modern national identity and tourism industry.

The famous queen who was crowned Cleopatra VII and reigned from 51 to 30 BC. as the last ruler, was the direct descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, bodyguard of Alexander the Great and founder of the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic kingdom.

After her much-discussed and dramatized death – according to popular legend, from a self-inflicted snake bite — Egypt became a Roman colony.

Roman writers such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio, known for chronicling the Roman and Greek worlds during Cleopatra’s reign, said Cleopatra was fair-skinned and of Macedonian descent.

Other scientists have argued it is possible that she was a quarter Egyptian.

“The Egyptians did not bear the characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans,” said Dr. Samia Al-Mirghani, former director general of the Center for Research and Conservation of Antiquities, in a statement, citing evidence from anthropological studies and DNA testing.

She argued that inscriptions on ancient tombs and statues “represented the (ancient) Egyptians with characteristics as close as possible to the Egyptians of today.” diversity”.

Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s most famous archaeologists and double Minister of Antiquities, was adamant: Cleopatra was not black.

“When we see statues and figures of her father and brother, we will find no evidence to support this claim that she was black,” he said in a statement.

Hawass added that by the time of Cleopatra’s reign, Egypt ruled over the Kingdom of Kush, also known as Nubia, in modern-day Sudan and southern Egypt with its distinctive black African culture. “But they have no connection to Pharaonic civilization,” he said.

The creators of a petition calling for the show’s cancellation said it had previously received more than 100,000 signatures taken offline without warning. NBC News has contacted asking if the petition has been withdrawn and if so, why.

Both Netflix and Nutopia, the production company behind “Queen Cleopatra,” didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Egyptian lawmaker Saboura al-Sayyed this week reiterated his earlier call for Netflix to be banned across the country.

It’s not the first time the casting of Cleopatra has sparked controversy. Israeli actor Gal Godot made headlines in 2020 when she was cast in an upcoming film, leading to allegations: “whitewash.”

I wrote in Variety last weekNetflix show director Tina Gharani wrote that she watched Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood portrayal of Cleopatra as a child but was always amazed at the accuracy of the cast: “I was intrigued, but even then I felt that the picture was wrong.” . Was her skin really that white?”

She argues that while the queen was descended from a Macedonian royal family, “Cleopatra was eight generations removed from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the likelihood that she is white rather unlikely.”

Gharani wrote that casting a black actress was a political act that resulted in her becoming the target of an online hate campaign.

“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melancholic sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to white people seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians that seems really important,” she said.

James, the actress who plays the legendary queen, responded to critics in a recent interview Twitter post with screenshots of offensive comments containing a racial slur. “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show,” she said.

Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo and Patrick Smith from London.

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