The Netflix series "Queen Cleopatra" has become a lightning rod for protests in Egypt and ignited a global controversy, centered around the casting choice of a black actress in the titular role. As discussions about historical accuracy, artistic freedom, and the representation of African culture unfold, the show's release on May 10 has only intensified the ongoing debates.
For decades, Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal of Cleopatra in the 1963 film has been the prevailing image associated with the Egyptian queen. However, the reality is that no one truly knows what Cleopatra looked like. While her father, Ptolemy XII, hailed from Macedonian-Greek origins, her mother's ethnic background remains uncertain.
Netflix's "Queen Cleopatra" now presents a fresh interpretation of the famed Egyptian queen. British actress Adele James assumes the lead role, prompting outcry and demonstrations in Egypt and around the world. Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary even filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that the streaming platform's content contradicts Islamic and societal values, particularly those held in Egypt.
The complaint further accuses Netflix of promoting "Afrocentrism" and eroding Egyptian identity. Al-Semary emphasizes the need to safeguard Egypt's cultural heritage and foster a sense of national belonging.
The Battle for Identity: Debating the Historical Queen
While depictions of Cleopatra VII have survived through various artifacts, including coins from Alexandria and Palestinian Askelon, as well as a bust from the Berlin Antiquities Collection, the historical record offers no concrete evidence regarding her skin color.
Tina Gharavi, the director of "Queen Cleopatra," argues in a Variety article that Adele James may bear a closer resemblance to the real Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor. Gharavi asserts that the significance placed on a white-skinned portrayal stems from a perceived sense of value attributed to it, which holds great importance for certain Egyptians.
The Intersection of Science and Culture: Decoding Cleopatra's Appearance
Cleopatra's enigmatic legacy has captivated scholars and enthusiasts for over two millennia. Scientists have attempted to reconstruct her appearance using sophisticated techniques and forensic procedures.
However, cultural considerations often overshadow scientific findings. Previous controversies arose when Angelina Jolie was slated to play Cleopatra in a now-abandoned film adaptation, and when Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, was cast as the Egyptian ruler in an upcoming production.
Gadot wryly commented, "If you want to stick to the facts, Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress, and we didn't find her." These instances have triggered accusations of whitewashing, casting white actresses in non-white roles.
In the case of the "Queen Cleopatra" series, the casting of a black actress has sparked a complete reversal of the previous debate. Thus, two contradictory claims are made concerning the same character, highlighting the complexity of the ongoing Cleopatra discourse.