Was Queen Cleopatra Black? Netflix series explained
With the uproar around Netflix’s new documentary series Queen Cleopatra, fans are left wondering if Queen Cleopatra was Black or not.
When it comes to the topic of race and identity, sometimes there’s not a clear cut answer. Someone can be from one race or another or a mix of both. However, when it comes to historical figures that lived more than 2,000 years ago, the answer to what their identity was becomes even murkier.
That seems to be the issue when it comes Queen Cleopatra, Season 2 of Netflix‘s African Queens docuseries. The series focuses on female monarchs and combines dramatic recreations with interviews with historians and experts, as well as people from the modern-day regions that the Queen ruled over. Jada Pickett-Smith has narrated both seasons. Since the trailer for Season 2 first debuted at the end of April, people have been arguing over the series’ depiction of Egypt’s last Pharaoh.
So, let’s dive in and answer everyone’s pressing question: Was Cleopatra Black?
Was Cleopatra Black or White?
Pharaoh Cleopatra was neither Black nor White as the answer is more complicated than one would think.
In Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra, the Pharaoh is played by Adele James, a mixed race actress whose best known for playing Tina Mollett on Casualty, which is a UK-centric show that’s known as the longest-running primetime medical drama series in the world.
As Netflix’s show focuses on Black royalty and Egypt is located in the Northeastern corner of Africa, casting a mixed race actor wasn’t too surprising as the Ptolemaic dynasty, which Cleopatra was the last ruler of, hailed from Greece.
However, when it comes to Cleopatra’s race itself, it’s completely unknown. Duana W Roller, author of Cleopatra: A Biography, weighed in on the debate about the Queen’s ethnicity, saying: “While it is quite possible that Cleopatra was pure Macedonian Greek… it is probable that she had some Egyptian blood, although the amount is uncertain.”
Because her true race is quite ambiguous, it’s left the role of Cleopatra in TV shows and movies open to be played by actresses of any race. However Guardian writer Leila Latif pointed out that it’s “notable that some see blue-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and Israeli Wonder Woman Gal Gadot as more accurate” than a Black woman playing the role. Latif also stated that Hollywood’s default to whiteness is “insidious and ridiculous.”
There has been a lot of backlash to Netflix’s decision to hire a biracial woman to play Cleopatra. In a statement to CBS News, Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna explained why she has a problem with the film, saying: “I am against the film because it is pushing an Afrocentric agenda, regardless of the historical accuracy of whether Cleopatra was Black or White. They are imposing the identity politics of the 21st century and appropriating the ancient Egyptian past, just as the Eurocentrists and the far-right in Europe are doing.”
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Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities seemed to agree with Hanna’s sentiments as they released an official statement in which they stated that Cleopatra “had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features” and explained that they opposed James’ being cast in the role as she has “African features and dark skin.”
James herself seemed to have expected a bit of backlash towards her casting. In an interview with Glamour UK, the actress said: “I was expecting some backlash because I grew up as a biracial woman in the Western world, and I know how things go, but I wasn’t expecting the level of it. The lawsuits and accompanying things like that are a bit intense.” James added that the racist comments and death threats she has been receiving because of her role on the show are “not necessary, and it’s very harmful” and that she feels “sad for people that they would do that to someone they don’t know or to someone they know.”
Netflix itself appeared to address the issue around Cleopatra’s race in a recent Tudum article. In the interview, the producers of the series stated: “[Cleopatra’s] ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.”
In the same article, Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, a Cleopatra scholar who was interviewed for the series, echoed Netflix’s intention with this series, saying: “Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems strange to insist on depicting her as wholly European.”
Queen Cleopatra is now streaming on Netflix. You can check out more of our TV & movie coverage in the hubs below:
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