The director of “Queen Cleopatra” is addressing critics.
Last week, Netflix released the trailer for the new drama-documentary series about the iconic Queen of Egypt and drew intense backlash for casting a Black actress as Cleopatra. The series is executive produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith.
Writing for Variety, director Tina Gharavi, who is Iranian, directly took on criticisms, recalling, “I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?”
It is not known exactly what the real Cleopatra looked like, and heritage has long been a source of debate, often attributed to Macedonian Greeks, but with some claiming Persian and other backgrounds.
“Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress,” Gharavi wrote. “For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right. The hunt was on to find the right performer to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.”
She continued, “After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”
Among those who have voiced the strongest criticism of the casting have been Egyptians, including during production of the series.
“While shooting, I became the target of a huge online hate campaign. Egyptians accused me of ‘blackwashing’ and ‘stealing’ their history,” the director said. “Some threatened to ruin my career — which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much!”
As for the facts, Gharavi said, “So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain 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.”
The director went on, “It’s almost as if we don’t realize that misogynoir still has an effect on us today. We need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.”
Finally, Gharavi added, “We re-imagined a world over 2,000 years ago where once there was an exceptional woman who ruled. I would like to draw a direct line from her to the women in Egypt who rose up in the Arab uprisings, and to my Persian sisters who are today rebelling against a brutal regime. Never before has it been more important to have women leaders: white or Black.”
“Queen Cleopatra” premieres May 10.