Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Controversy Explained

The role of Cleopatra attracted Elizabeth Taylor, Adele James and Angelina Jolie.  (Photo: Everett Collection, Netflix, Getty Images)

The role of Cleopatra attracted Elizabeth Taylor, Adele James and Angelina Jolie. (Photo: Everett Collection, Netflix, Getty Images)

Coming to Netflix screens next month: Queen Cleopatra, a four-part “docudrama”, incorporating expert interviews as well as re-enactments and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith. But a heated debate over which actress is chosen as the iconic Egyptian leader is here NOW.

Nearly three weeks before its May 10 premiere, director Tina Gharavi said that during filming she “became the target of a huge online hate campaign”, and an Egyptian lawyer has filed a legal complaint that the series violates media laws and aims to “erase Egyptian identity.”

Here is an overview:

Why are people so upset? And what are they saying?

Their problem is that Adele James, who is of mixed descent, was cast as the title character, while at the same time the show is part of executive producer Smith’s African queens, which allows the public to discover “the fearless and captivating lives of queens who were probably not part of their Western university curriculum”. And there’s been some backlash from people in Egypt and elsewhere, who say the show is historically inaccurate for a black woman to play the role.

Historians have debated the precise ancestry and race of Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt for 21 years, from 51 BC to 30 BC. However, she is most often described as having been Macedonian Greek on her father’s side. In Stacy Schiff’s acclaimed biography Cleopatra: a life, the author wrote that Cleopatra was Greek and “about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor”. The ancestry of the queen’s mother is unknown.

How did the show respond?

Netflix is ​​obviously well aware of the criticism. “The creative choice to cast an actor of mixed heritage to play Cleopatra is a nod to the age-old conversation about the ruler’s race,” reads the streamer’s official blog post. “At the time of his reign, the Egyptian population was multicultural and multiracial. Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identity of her mother and paternal grandparents were not known. was Greek. »

Also, we didn’t talk about race back then in the same way we do today.

“Asking whether someone was ‘black’ or ‘white’ is anachronistic,” said Rebecca Futo Kennedy, associate professor of classics at Denison University. Time. She added that it “says more about modern political investments than about trying to understand antiquity on its own terms.”

Gharavi herself wrote about Friday’s uproar for Variety.

“As I researched, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress. For me, the idea that people had been so wrong before – historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot vying to play her – meant we had to do even better,” she wrote. “The hunt was on to find the right performer to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.”

She also asked some interesting questions.

“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melancholy sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her closeness to whiteness seems to give her value, and to some Egyptians, that seems really important.”

And the star of the series shared some of the hateful comments she received on social media, explaining that she banned violators.

“If you don’t like the cast, don’t watch the show,” she tweeted. “Or do and commit to an (expert) opinion different from your own. Either way, I’M GASED and will continue to be!”

What have people said about the women who previously portrayed Cleopatra?

James, of course, isn’t the first to play the woman the world continues to talk about thousands of years after her death.

Taylor, whose portrayal is most famous, starred in the 1963 film Cleopatra, which infamously endured a disastrous shoot — which is where Taylor and Richard Burton teamed up — that made it the most expensive film ever made. Reviews for the film were mixed, but it topped the box office and eventually won four Oscars.

As recounted in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Taylor faced criticism for a different reason: She had converted to Judaism before marrying Eddie Fisher. The fact that she supported Israel meant that Egypt, which viewed the country as its enemy, banned her film.

Even before that, actresses including Theda Bara (1917’s Cleopatra) and Vivian Leigh (1945s Caesar and Cleopatra) had played it.

She is also not the first person to suffer a backlash.

Gal Gadot came under fire in 2020 when she stepped into the role for an unreleased film. Angelina Jolie, who has long been linked to a movie based on Schiff’s book, has been accused of “laundering” Hollywood.

The director behind the latest project defended her decision to choose who she chose: “After much hesitation and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only beauty of Cleopatra, but also her strength. What historians can confirm is that Cleopatra is more likely to look like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”

Queen Cleopatra is available Wednesday, May 10 on Netflix.

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