Was Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra Black?
That’s the hotly debated question surrounding Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra,” a drama-documentary series about the pharaonic ruler narrated and executive produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. And the series’ director had a few choice words Friday about the racist and colorist backlash she received for casting a Black actor as the titular queen, a decision she made following decades of academic discourse about Cleopatra’s enigmatic roots.
“After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece,” filmmaker Tina Gharavi wrote in an essay for Variety. “Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress. For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right.”
The series, which mixes dramatic reenactments with expert interviews, depicts the queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt as Black by starring British, mixed-race actor Adele James. The casting was “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race,” according to Netflix’s companion website, Tudum, and the series is the second installment of the streamer’s look at the lives of prominent and iconic African queens. (Season 1 focused on 7th century warrior Queen Njinga, who ruled over areas located in what’s known today as Angola.)
But since the casting announcement in February and this month’s trailer drop ahead of the series’ May 10 premiere, the production has faced major criticism and allegations of “blackwashing” and “stealing” from Egypt’s ancient history, with prominent Egyptians accusing the series of historical revisionism.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, a top Egyptologist and the country’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs, told the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that the idea that Cleopatra was Black is “completely fake.”
“Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black,” he said, pushing back against Black Americans who have claimed that the Egyptian civilization is of Black origin.
He said that the only Egyptian rulers known to have been Black are the Kushite kings of the 25th dynasty (747-656 BC), and he accused Netflix of “trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is Black.”
Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary also filed a complaint with Egypt’s public prosecutor to request that Netflix be blocked in the North African nation due to the promotion of “Afrocentric thinking” including “slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”
“Most of what Netflix platform displays do not conform to Islamic and societal values and principles, especially Egyptian ones,” he said in the complaint, according to Egypt Independent.
The trailer reportedly got so many dislikes on YouTube that Netflix had to disable commenting on the video and series star James took to Twitter last week to take a stand against some of the hateful messages she received: “If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show,” she wrote.
All that appeared to prompt Gharavi, a Sundance and BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, to enter the discourse Friday.
“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter,” the Persian director wrote in the essay.
Gharavi defended James’ casting by saying that historians can confirm that “it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.” Taylor notably portrayed the queen stateside in the Oscar-winning 1963 epic directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Gharavi argued that “we need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”
Cleopatra, the last queen of a Greek-speaking dynasty founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy, was born in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria in 69 BC. Egyptologists have confirmed that she was Macedonian-Greek on her father, Ptolemy XII’s, side, but her maternal heritage is less clear because little is known about her birth mother’s ethnic origin. Historians have said it’s possible that she, or any other female ancestor, was an Indigenous Egyptian or from elsewhere in Africa, according to the BBC.
Gharavi posited that Cleopatra, who succeeded her father in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC amid the expansion of the Roman Empire, was eight generations away from her Ptolemaic ancestors, “making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.”
In an attempt to tell the ruler’s story with humanism and nuance, Gharavi argued that “the last thing we needed was another Cleopatra divorced from her womanhood and her power only sexualized.”
“The  HBO series ‘Rome’ portrayed one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a sleazy, dissipated drug addict, yet Egypt didn’t seem to mind. Where was the outrage then? But portraying her as Black? Well. … 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.”
Representatives for Netflix declined to comment further when reached Friday by The Times.
The series debuts on the platform mere days after the “Bridgerton” prequel “Queen Charlotte” begins streaming on the platform. That project, albeit a fictional Regency drama, is also about a ruler who is believed to have Black roots and is portrayed by a Black performer.
In an April 12 statement, Pinkett Smith said that she wanted to find stories that would inspire her daughter, Willow.
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them,” Pinkett Smith told Tudum. “The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”
The producers worked with Cleopatra scholar Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton on the project to “explore Cleopatra’s story as a queen, strategist [and] ruler of formidable intellect.”
“Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt,” they said.
“Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems strange to insist on depicting her as wholly European,” said Ashton, who was interviewed for the series.