Experts in Egypt have hit out at Netflix for “blackwashing” the historical figure of Cleopatra in their upcoming docuseries African Queens: Queen Cleopatra.
The trailer of the project was met with backlash after it was revealed black actress Adele James had been cast to portray the Macedonian-Greek ruler.
Jada Pinkett Smith, who has produced the docuseries, gushed over the project as she remarked on the importance of telling Cleopatra’s story because “we don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens”.
However, Egyptian officials and historians have rebuked the notion that the Egyptian ruler was black with “curly hair.”
In a lengthy slapdown of the project, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said numerous art pieces depicting the ancient queen proved Cleopatra had a “light complexion” with “Hellenistic characteristics”.
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They said: “The Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Archeology confirms that Queen Cleopatra was light-skinned and [had] Hellenic features (Greek).
“Queen Cleopatra’s works and statues are the best evidence of her true features and Macedonia origins.”
Dr Mustafa Waziri, the leader of the Supreme Council of Archeology, doubled down on the organisation’s statement as he claimed the Netflix is “a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical misconception”.
Dr Waziri said: “The film is classified as a documentary and not a drama, the order that the owners of its industry have to investigate accuracy and refer to historical and scientific facts in order to ensure that the history and civilizations of peoples are not falsified.”
Cairo’s former antiquities minister accused the company of “confusing” people with their depiction of Cleopatra as a black woman.
Dr Zahi Hawass said: “Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black.”
The Head of the Egyptian Department of Archeology at Cairo University argued that Cleopatra would likely have been considered light-skinned because of her Macedonian origins.
Dr Nasser Mekkawy pointed out that the Egyptian ruler was a descendant of an Ancient Macedonian dynasty that had ruled the country for over 300 years – and that was known to marry within itself.
Cleopatra was married to two of her younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She then had a relationship with Roman consul Julius Cesar and Mark Anthony, by whom she had children Cesarion and twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus respectively.
The backlash over Netflix’s project has also led a solicitor to file a lawsuit demanding the company is shut down in Egypt.
Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary claimed the docuseries is trying to “promote Afrocentric thinking which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing Egyptian identity.”
And actress Somaya Elkhashab accused the company of trying to fulfil “modern African American fantasies” with their decision.
She wrote: “Identifying Queen Cleopatra as black for fulfilling modern African American fantasies is pure theft of Egyptian history and yet an attempt to rewrite history’s greats.”
Actress Liz Taylor notably portrayed the ancient Egyptian ruler in 1963, with British actor Richard Burton starring as Mark Anthony.
African Queens: Cleopatra director Tina Gharavi cited Taylor’s portrayal of the film as the reason behind her decision to cast James as the Egyptian ruler.
Writing for Variety, she said: “‘I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra,’ she wrote. ‘ I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?
“With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?”
French Egyptologist Michel Chaveau, however, noted Roman historians would have likely addressed Cleopatra’s skin colour in the historiography.
Chaveau said: “Had she been dark-skinned, we would have had to find some testimony or allusion, especially from the circle of Romans who were hostile to her and racist enough to underline this detail”.
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