The upcoming Netflix docudrama, “Queen Cleopatra,” is receiving a barrage of criticism in Egypt due to the casting of Britain’s Adele James, who has Afro-Caribbean and Irish heritage, as the first-century Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Many Egyptian academics argue that Cleopatra was not Black, but of Greek or Macedonian descent, and that the docudrama violates the country’s media laws. Despite the controversy, Adele James maintains her position, clearly stating on her Twitter account, “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.”
While scholars agree that Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek on her father’s side, the ethnic origin of her mother remains unknown, leading some historians to suggest that Cleopatra was of mixed heritage. The docudrama’s executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith, states that casting a Black actress as Cleopatra aims to invite conversation about the queen’s contested racial identity.
However, many locals insist that the portrayal is historically inaccurate, and they remain skeptical of the South-African director’s interpretation of Egypt’s identity. Egyptologists like Zahi Hawass have been especially vocal in denouncing the show’s portrayal of Cleopatra as Black.
This is not the first time debates about how to represent Cleopatra on screen have arisen. Plans for a movie directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Cleopatra were met with strong critiques, with critics arguing that the role should have gone to an Arab or African actor. Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra renews debates about how Black culture is represented on the international stage, especially when involving such an iconic figure in African history.
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