The Queen cleopatra will be the first royalty to have her story told in the documentary series Netflix about African queens produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. Mixing interviews with dramatizations, the production opens only on May 10, but it already suffers retaliation and racist attacks after the disclosure that the Egyptian is played by black actress Adele James. Even politicians in Egypt are finding the choice of the actress to play the figure already represented in the past by white actresses like Elizabeth Taylor to be absurd and are threatening to ban the work from the country.
In an article published in Varietyproduction director Tina Gharavi countered the controversy by arguing that Queen Cleopatra tends to be more faithful than other works already made. “I remember as a child seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even so, I felt the image wasn’t quite right. Was her skin really that white? With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and free her from the stranglehold that Hollywood has imposed on her image?”, Reflects the director.
Born in Iran, Tina points out that Cleopatra’s origins make it clear that the chances of her having been a white woman are slim and rejects that there is controversy now, since the choice of white actresses was never questioned. “Cleopatra was attributed at some point to the Greeks, Macedonians and Persians. The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family — of Ptolemaic lineage — intermarried with the Seleucid dynasty of West Asia and was in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance that she was white rather unlikely. After 300 years, sure enough, we can safely say that Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston”, he jokes, citing the casting of actresses like Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci – and even the dispute between Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot – to interpret her as erroneous.
An Egyptian lawyer even filed a lawsuit accusing Queen Cleopatra of violating media laws and trying to “erase the Egyptian identity”, while one archaeologist made insistent comments that Cleopatra had “light skin, not black”. “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. After much waiting and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actress who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength. What historians can confirm is that Cleopatra is more likely to resemble Adele than Elizabeth Taylor. The HBO Series Rome portrayed one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a sleazy and dissipated drug addict, but Egypt didn’t seem to care. Where was the outrage then? But portray her as black? Good…”.
Tina even lashes out at Egyptians for being offended after she asks them to see themselves as Africans. “While filming, I became the target of a massive online hate campaign. The Egyptians accused me of ‘washing’ and ‘stealing’ their history. Some threatened to ruin my career. So Cleopatra was black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be sure that she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with. Above all, we need to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than who we are.”