Why Some Egyptians Are Angry Over Netflix's Black Cleopatra

Cairo – Once Netflix has been discontinued the trailer The internet has been simmering with heavy drama for the upcoming ‘docudrama’ about Queen Cleopatra in ancient Egypt. The preview was quickly met with criticism. Some Egyptians complained that the film was appropriating their culture and rewriting their history, especially since Cleopatra is portrayed by a black woman in the film.

Produced by Jada Pinkett Smith and starring multiracial British actress Adele James as Queen Cleopatra, the film is slated to hit theaters May 10. It is the second part of a Netflix “documentary” about African Queens, which focuses on rulers of the African continent.

“Queen Cleopatra” portrayed by British actress Adele James in the Netflix “Docudrama” due out on May 10, 2023.


In the latest official response to the controversy, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities commented gave a lengthy statement In late April, she emphasized that “Queen Cleopatra had fair skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.”

The statement criticized Netflix for casting James in the role of Cleopatra, who the ministry said has “African features and dark skin.”

Who was Cleopatra and who is complaining?

Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt. She was the all-powerful queen for about two decades, until her death in 30 BC. Her story has been told in literature and Hollywood for years, and although she is often portrayed primarily as a seductress, historians notice that she is most likely also an “accomplished politician”.

Some critics of the upcoming Netflix version of her story have argued that while ancient Egypt is often inaccurately portrayed by Hollywood, fiction is one thing and anything presented as a documentary is another.

Cleopatra as portrayed in the 1963 Hollywood film directed by Elizabeth Taylor.

20th century studios

“Since the film is classified as a documentary and not a drama, those making the film must be accurate and based on historical and scientific facts to ensure history and civilizations are not distorted,” the Egyptian ministry stressed that “the Rejection of the film before it was screened was in defense of Queen Cleopatra’s story… and has nothing to do with racism.”

An Egyptian lawyer filed a formal complaint against the film, urging prosecutors to “investigate and take all legal action against the creators of this work and against the platform’s management for involvement in this crime and to ban the platform in Egypt.” .

“We have known for thousands of years that Cleopatra is of Greek descent and was born in Egypt. That’s a fact,” Mahmoud El-Semiry, the attorney who filed the complaint, told CBS News. “Our main objection is the distortion of these facts. It’s not about being black or white or even yellow. Suppose they wanted to portray Cleopatra as a man, we would object to that too.”

Does it matter if Cleopatra is black or white on Netflix?

The feeling that Egypt needs to protect its cultural identity from appropriation, and that there are people actively trying to usurp it, seems to be the primary driver behind the backlash over the Netflix feature.

Some Egyptians believe the casting decision is part of an elaborate scheme backed by black American celebrities to “blacken” their ancient history. They consider it a transgression of intentions Afrocentrism Movement and an attempt by non-Egyptians to claim Egyptian heritage as their property.

Cleopatra VII, the last queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt, reigned from 51 B.C. until her death in 31 BC. Chr

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“I oppose the film because it advances an Afrocentric agenda, regardless of the historical accuracy of whether Cleopatra was black or white,” said Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna to CBS News. “They are enforcing 21st-century identity politics and embracing the ancient Egyptian past, just like the Eurocentrists and far-right in Europe are doing.”

“The Afrocentrists are just a reflection of the Eurocentrists,” argued Hanna. “They are both racists and both inaccurate and false.”

“I understand why the Egyptians are angry, but I reject any racist comment,” Hanna told CBS News. “The Egyptians were disappointed with the formal confrontation with their past. Such debates and critical issues are never part of the school curriculum. So the Egyptians have a very fragile understanding of their past.”

What race was Cleopatra from?

“The ancient Egyptians had all colors,” says Hanna. “Egypt was more of a culture than a race, and the idea of ​​skin color was really irrelevant in ancient times.”

The Antiquities Ministry’s statement said Cleopatra came from a Macedonian family that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, and according to customs of the time, kings married their sisters and kept their Macedonian race “pure” during this period. Many archaeologists share the government’s view of Egypt’s ancient history and leave no doubt as to the color of the queen’s skin.

But Hanna told CBS News that the facts from more than 2,000 years ago are less clear.

“We don’t know for sure if Cleopatra was black or white or even red, and we don’t even know if she considered herself Egyptian or not,” the archaeologist said. “We didn’t find her grave. We have no contemporary descriptions of her. We don’t know who her mother was, nor who her grandmother was.”

“We can argue about her complexion and whether or not she identified as Egyptian,” she added. “But most likely we won’t find a real answer because it might not exist yet.”

What does Adelle James think of the controversy?

James representing the old queen, told British Glamor magazine In an interview published earlier this month, she said she expects the Netflix feature to spark some discussion about race.

“I thought people would love that,” she told the magazine. “I remember when I first came to the audition and how excited I was that they were doing something like this in terms of racial precedent, but also in terms of just humanizing them on so many other levels and not compromising them compare to this sexual seductress.” when she is portrayed. I was expecting a backlash because I grew up as a multiracial woman in the western world and know how things work, but I wasn’t expecting the magnitude. The lawsuits and the things that come with them are a bit intense.”

James echoed Hanna’s point, noting that “we just don’t know” what skin tone Cleopatra actually had, adding that she felt she had “every right to have a chance to humanize this incredible woman.”

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