Last Wednesday, May 10, the Netflix documentary series “Queen Cleopatra” reignited debates about the appearance of the figure due to the lead actress being, for the first time, a black actress, Adele James.
The four episodes produced by Jada Pinkett Smith tell the story of Cleopatra, who was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC. and became the last queen of a Greek-speaking dynasty founded by Ptolemy, the Macedonian general of Alexander the Great.
Regarding the choice of Adele James, on Netflix’s partner site, Tudum, the platform said in February that the decision to cast the British actress was “a reference to the centuries-old debate about the ruler’s race”.
Jada Pinkett Smith reinforced the choice and said: “We don’t often see or hear stories about black queens, and that was important for me, as well as for my daughter, and for my community to be able to know these stories because there are a lot of them!”
The repercussion of “Queen Cleopatra”
Even before the launch of the documentary, there were criticisms of the choice of Adele James. Also in April, Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a lawsuit with the Egyptian Public Ministry to demand an investigation and the suspension of access to Netflix services in the country. The lawyer claimed that the content of “Queen Cleopatra” distorts the history and identity of the country, in addition to violating media laws. According to the website Egypt Independent, the lawsuit read: “Much of what the Netflix platform displays does not conform to Islamic and societal values and principles, especially Egyptian ones.”
On the whole, Egyptologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass told al-Masry al-Youm newspaper that the story portrayed is not true: “This is completely false. Cleopatra was Greek, which means she had fair skin, not black”. Hawass claimed that the only rulers of Egypt known to be black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC). “Netflix is trying to stir up the confusion by spreading false and misleading facts that the origin of Egyptian civilization is black,” he added, urging Egyptians to take a stand against the streaming company.
Netflix, on the other hand, commented that “Cleopatra’s legacy is the subject of many academic debates often ignored by Hollywood. ‘Queen Cleopatra’ is an invitation to reassess this fascinating part of her history.”
The production director, Tina Gharavi, also commented on the controversies through Variety magazine: “Doing my research, I realized the political act that it would be if we saw a Cleopatra interpreted by a black actress. To me, the idea that people have been so unbelievably wrong before – historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and more recently with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to represent her – meant that we had to get even more right. The quest was on to find the right interpreter to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century. Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a sister with melanin? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?”
Amid Tina’s questions, she complements at another time: “So, Cleopatra was black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be sure that she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We have to have a conversation with ourselves about colorism and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with. Above all, we have to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than about who we are.”
Representations of Cleopatra throughout History
According to Jorge Paulino, a specialist, and professor of art history, the figure of Cleopatra will have a different form of representation in each era. “Ancient Egypt always offers material for media and cultural production. Its history and its mysteries still enchant us and raise questions about a civilization that lasted three millennia. Cleopatra is a striking character in this story.”
The reign of this figure serves as inspiration for several artists from a very early age. The queen was the subject of many painters and sculptors, especially in Rome, as she became involved with Julius Caesar, with whom she lived together in Italy and had a child.
However, some parts of the queen’s family tree are unknown to this day, so there are many speculations about her true appearance. Jorge says that the forms of representation change according to the different interpretations of the story itself. “Each era interprets the past according to the prevailing views of the period.”
In cinema, Cleopatra has been portrayed since 1917 with the film starring Theda Bara (1885-1955). It is estimated that at least another 40 actresses played the role on screen, such as the French Claudette Colbert (1903-1996), the Italian Sophia Loren and the British Vivien Leigh (1913-1967), and Helen Gardner (1908-1986). However, among the best-known versions is that of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) in the 1963 film.
Even in Brazil Cleopatra was interpreted, who assumed the role was actress Alessandra Negrini in 2007 in a film that was shot in just 19 days. The feature transformed Copacabana Beach into the Nile River and won six Candangos at the Festival de Brasília, including those for best film and actress.
Regarding Adele James’ most recent interpretation, Paulino says it is consistent, “since we are talking about a civilization on the great African continent. It is absurd for Elizabeth Taylor to represent the queen of Ancient Egypt of a dynasty. However, it was the image that remained in the modern West”.
The choice of a black actress for the new Netflix documentary does not represent a threat to the story, “on the contrary, it seems coherent to me. As for criticisms or revolts, they are natural in a symbolic dispute over the image of a character, due to the struggle for recognition and representativeness on the part of black people”.
There is no definitive vision of the figure of Cleopatra and, according to Jorge Paulino, the repercussion of the documentary does not represent a crisis, “but disputes over forms of representation and a necessary and urgent revision of colonial and distorted images of historical characters”.
The article above was edited by Clarissa Palácio.
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