From Elizabeth Taylor to Gal Gadot to Adele James, the casting of Queen Cleopatra in film and television has been a subject of mass contention for almost as long as the monarch has existed within the pages of cinematic history. Historians have deemed the monarch’s existence as one that warrants much debate surrounding her heritage. While the majority of the debate leans towards her being of European ancestry, there is also a claim of her being of mixed race or African descent. Netflix’s latest docuseries takes a leap into riskier territories by exploring the Queen’s identity as being the latter.
Netflix Entangled in Debate Surrounding Cleopatra’s Descent
In recent times, more controversy has plagued Netflix than ever before with one of the latest dramas centering around the release of its docu-series on the legendary Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. The age-old, era-defining story of Cleopatra has haunted the scripts and fables as old as time, with historians and fiction writers scribbling down tales of the Queen’s tragic love story and her fated reign over the land of Nile.
But among the numerous debates that spiral around the monarch, one that occupies the most mass interest is the Queen’s heritage. While historians claim she was born in the city of Alexandria and is a descendant of Ptolemy, the Macedonian general of Alexander the Great, making her Greek by lineage and Egyptian by place of birth, there is another faction that has maintained that the Queen’s mother, on whom not much can be found in texts and literature from the era, could have been of African descent. The debate, a much heated one, has shrouded modern-era historians and has remained a topic of much dissent and discussion.
Netflix Drama Surrounding Queen Cleopatra Controversy
Netflix has most recently picked up the historically debated subject of Queen Cleopatra’s descent and heritage, portraying her as African in its upcoming docu-series that stars British actor, Adele James, and is produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. In light of the recent outcry after the news of Queen Cleopatra casting an Anglo-African actress in the lead, Adele James had pithily quipped, “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.” However, Pinkett Smith was more gracious in her reply:
“[Queen Cleopatra is] a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race. We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!”
However, as important as it might be to address the situation, finding civilized minds that are willing to stand on neutral ground and hold a well-informed debate may be easier said than done. The news of Queen Cleopatra was countered with immediate and volatile backlash, not just from the media but from historians as well. While Egyptologist Zahi Hawass claimed, “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black,” other more radical partisans have taken measures to seek an end to the show’s airing. An Egyptian lawyer was reported to file a complaint that would restrict Netflix from releasing the show in the country.
To make matters even more inflammable, Gal Gadot was reported to portray Cleopatra in an upcoming film helmed by Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins. The news that came out in 2022 further opened up the line for a debate on the cultural appropriation of the Egyptian monarch. At the time, Gal Gadot defended her casting by saying,
“First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.”
A recent BBC study found what could potentially be Queen Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, to be of mixed-race descent by conducting a face restructuring on her unearthed skeleton. At the time of Gadot’s casting, the study had caused an upheaval in the intellectual community with many stating that a Black actress or one of mixed ethnicity should be cast in the coveted role.
The current casting of Adele James has resulted in the opposite debate, with claims of Blackwashing plaguing the recent series. The subject will continue to rage on as time passes with no possible way of settling the argument and Gadot and James’ casting only opens up the stream of discussion that will keep plaguing historians and literary experts throughout the centuries.