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Explained: Who Was Queen Cleopatra? Why Is the Netflix Docuseries Controversial?

Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Netflix's newly released docudrama Queen Cleopatra has been stirring up controversy since the release of its trailer in April.

Narrated and produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, the historical docudrama chronicles the life of ancient Egypt's most famous historical figure, Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator.

However, the show's portrayal of the Egyptian queen as a black woman has triggered boycott calls against Netflix, an online petition against the show, and even a legal complaint.

So, what exactly is the controversy about? Which race did Cleopatra belong to? Why is Egypt trying to ban the docudrama? We explain.

Explained: Who Was Queen Cleopatra? Why Is the Netflix Docuseries Controversial?

  1. 1. Who Was Cleopatra? Why Is She Controversial?

    Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, popularly known as Cleopatra, was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC. After the death of her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC, she became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII and eventually replaced him as the sole ruler of the kingdom until her death in 30 BC.

    Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

    A still from the docuseries.

    (Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

    • While Cleopatra's bloodline and that of her mother and grandmother remain a mystery, many experts say that there's no proof that suggests either woman was black.

    • While some speculate that Cleopatra's mother was a native Egyptian woman, others believe she was of Greek ancestry.

    • This led several historians to believe that Cleopatra may have been Egyptian or from some other part of Africa.

    • Cleopatra's father, however, was largely believed to have a traditional Macedonian Greek stem.

    Despite no consensus on her appearance, Cleopatra was celebrated for her beauty and intellect. Even today, the queen is often the subject of debate because of her ancestry, sexuality, and love affairs.

    The origin of a black Cleopatra: Jamaican-American writer JA Rogers wrote a profile of the Egyptian queen in his 1946 book, World’s Great Men of Color, which claims that Cleopatra was a black-skinned woman.

    • In his book, Rogers cited references from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra about the queen's "tawny" skin tone, which he claims is synonymous with the archaic term "mulatto," used for someone with a mixed heritage.

    • He cited another line from the play in his book, in which Cleopatra refers to herself as a black-skinned woman.

    "Think on me, that am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black and wrinkled deep in time," Cleopatra says in Shakespeare's play.
    • However, critics of Afrocentrism saw Rogers' claim as part of a larger Afro-American movement that began associating itself with ancient Egyptian achievements in the early twentieth century.

    • Meanwhile, Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of Classics, told TIME Magazine that references to black-skinned Egyptians present in ancient texts have a gendered element to them.

    • "Ideologically, women were associated with pale or 'white' skin and men with dark or 'black' skin. This is a gender division, not ethnic or modern bio-racial," Kennedy told TIME.

    Expand
  2. 2. A Little More About Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra'

    Queen Cleopatra premiered on Netflix on 10 May 2023 in a four-part series. The docudrama is the latest installment of Jada's African Queens, which documents the lives of fearless women of African ancestry.

    However, the series revived the debate surrounding Cleopatra's race soon after its cast was revealed on 13 April.

    Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

    The cast of Netflix's Queen Cleopatra.

    (Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

    • The periodical docudrama stars biracial actor Adele James as the titular character.

    • It features expert interviews and reenactments to explain why Cleopatra still remains a cultural icon and a fierce feminist, even after two millenniums.

    • The series also stars John Partridge as Julius Caesar, Craig Russell as Marc Antony, and Michael Greco as Pothinus.

    As per Netflix's companion site, Tudum, the creative decision to cast Adele as Cleopatra was a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the pharaoh's race.
    • The Netflix series asserts that during the time of Cleopatra's reign, the Egyptian population was multiracial and multicultural.

    • Hence, Cleopatra's race was likely to be undocumented, leaving the identities of her maternal grandparents and mother unknown.

    "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 tonnes of them. The sad part is that we don't have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations."
    Jada Pinkett Smith told Tudum.
    Expand
  3. 3. Why Is Egypt Trying To Ban the Docudrama?

    This isn't the first time that an on-screen portrayal of Cleopatra has caused an uproar among viewers. In Egypt, there is strong opposition to perceived inaccurate depictions of ancient Egyptian figures.

    • Recently, Egyptians cancelled American comedian Kevin Hart's show because of his Afrocentric views and accused him of "blackwashing" history.

    • Almost three years ago, when Israeli actor Gal Gadot was set to star as Cleopatra in an upcoming film, it received heavy backlash, and the film was accused of 'whitewashing', in this instance.

    • The 1963 film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor as the titular character, was also banned in Egypt.

    Queen Cleopatra's director, Tina Gharayi, also addressed the casting criticism, saying, "It's more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor," Decider reported.
    Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

    Elizabeth Taylor in and as Cleopatra (1963).

    (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

    Egypt's issues with the "false" representation of its history and culture are not just confined to the casting of African actors. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef addressed the topic in a recent debate hosted by Piers Morgan.

    "We're not crazy about Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra either. It was also inaccurate. I don't know where you get the idea that we are happy that she played the role," Youssef said, adding that the actor was banned from Egypt after the release of the film due to her pro-Israel stance.

    Egypt's reaction to the Netflix series: Jada Pinkett Smith's Queen Cleopatra has naturally caused an uproar among Egyptians because of the show's claims of Cleopatra's black African ancestry. Egyptians have been keen on expressing their disapproval of the same.

    • Responding to the controversy surrounding Netflix's docudrama, Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities declared that based on "bas-reliefs and statues," Cleopatra was "white-skinned."

    • Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary even filed a lawsuit against Netflix with a public prosecutor with the intention of getting the streaming platform banned in the country for promoting Afrocentrism.

    • An online petition was signed by over 8,000 people accusing the Netflix show of rewriting history.

    Addressing the charges of "historical falsification," SCA Secretary General Mostafa Waziri said in his statement, "The appearance of the heroine is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy, especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work, which requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified," Deadline reported.
    Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

    A tweet shared with the "Egypt for Egyptians" hashtag on Twitter.

    (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

    • Young Egyptians have created a viral campaign against the Netflix show, with the hashtag "Egypt for Egyptians."

    • In this campaign, people have been sharing a split image of their own face with that of the ancient Egyptian figures, to highlight similarities between today's Egyptians and the ancient Egyptians.

    • As a result of the backlash, Netflix had to turn the comments off on the trailer for Queen Cleopatra on YouTube.

    Expand
  4. 4. So, How Did the Makers React?

    Upon receiving such heavy backlash against Queen Cleopatra's release, the makers of the docudrama responded to the criticism in a statement given to Tudum. They highlighted the emphasis of the show on Cleopatra as a powerful woman rather than the colour of her skin.

    Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

    Adele James in and as Queen Cleopatra.

    (Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

    "The aim of African Queens has always been to uncover the hidden histories of powerful women from the past and what made them leaders that we still talk about today. Working with leading historians and experts including Shelley Haley (Professor of Classics and African Studies, Hamilton College) and Dr Sally-Ann Ashton (Cleopatra scholar), we explore Cleopatra's story as a queen, strategist, ruler of formidable intellect as well as a woman whose heritage is the subject of great debate."
    The producers of Queen Cleopatra told Tudum.

    "Her 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," the producers added.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Who Was Cleopatra? Why Is She Controversial?

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, popularly known as Cleopatra, was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC. After the death of her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC, she became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII and eventually replaced him as the sole ruler of the kingdom until her death in 30 BC.

Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

A still from the docuseries.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

  • While Cleopatra's bloodline and that of her mother and grandmother remain a mystery, many experts say that there's no proof that suggests either woman was black.

  • While some speculate that Cleopatra's mother was a native Egyptian woman, others believe she was of Greek ancestry.

  • This led several historians to believe that Cleopatra may have been Egyptian or from some other part of Africa.

  • Cleopatra's father, however, was largely believed to have a traditional Macedonian Greek stem.

Despite no consensus on her appearance, Cleopatra was celebrated for her beauty and intellect. Even today, the queen is often the subject of debate because of her ancestry, sexuality, and love affairs.

The origin of a black Cleopatra: Jamaican-American writer JA Rogers wrote a profile of the Egyptian queen in his 1946 book, World’s Great Men of Color, which claims that Cleopatra was a black-skinned woman.

  • In his book, Rogers cited references from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra about the queen's "tawny" skin tone, which he claims is synonymous with the archaic term "mulatto," used for someone with a mixed heritage.

  • He cited another line from the play in his book, in which Cleopatra refers to herself as a black-skinned woman.

"Think on me, that am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black and wrinkled deep in time," Cleopatra says in Shakespeare's play.
  • However, critics of Afrocentrism saw Rogers' claim as part of a larger Afro-American movement that began associating itself with ancient Egyptian achievements in the early twentieth century.

  • Meanwhile, Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of Classics, told TIME Magazine that references to black-skinned Egyptians present in ancient texts have a gendered element to them.

  • "Ideologically, women were associated with pale or 'white' skin and men with dark or 'black' skin. This is a gender division, not ethnic or modern bio-racial," Kennedy told TIME.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

A Little More About Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra'

Queen Cleopatra premiered on Netflix on 10 May 2023 in a four-part series. The docudrama is the latest installment of Jada's African Queens, which documents the lives of fearless women of African ancestry.

However, the series revived the debate surrounding Cleopatra's race soon after its cast was revealed on 13 April.

Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

The cast of Netflix's Queen Cleopatra.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

  • The periodical docudrama stars biracial actor Adele James as the titular character.

  • It features expert interviews and reenactments to explain why Cleopatra still remains a cultural icon and a fierce feminist, even after two millenniums.

  • The series also stars John Partridge as Julius Caesar, Craig Russell as Marc Antony, and Michael Greco as Pothinus.

As per Netflix's companion site, Tudum, the creative decision to cast Adele as Cleopatra was a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the pharaoh's race.
  • The Netflix series asserts that during the time of Cleopatra's reign, the Egyptian population was multiracial and multicultural.

  • Hence, Cleopatra's race was likely to be undocumented, leaving the identities of her maternal grandparents and mother unknown.

"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 tonnes of them. The sad part is that we don't have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations."
Jada Pinkett Smith told Tudum.
0

Why Is Egypt Trying To Ban the Docudrama?

This isn't the first time that an on-screen portrayal of Cleopatra has caused an uproar among viewers. In Egypt, there is strong opposition to perceived inaccurate depictions of ancient Egyptian figures.

  • Recently, Egyptians cancelled American comedian Kevin Hart's show because of his Afrocentric views and accused him of "blackwashing" history.

  • Almost three years ago, when Israeli actor Gal Gadot was set to star as Cleopatra in an upcoming film, it received heavy backlash, and the film was accused of 'whitewashing', in this instance.

  • The 1963 film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor as the titular character, was also banned in Egypt.

Queen Cleopatra's director, Tina Gharayi, also addressed the casting criticism, saying, "It's more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor," Decider reported.
Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

Elizabeth Taylor in and as Cleopatra (1963).

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Egypt's issues with the "false" representation of its history and culture are not just confined to the casting of African actors. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef addressed the topic in a recent debate hosted by Piers Morgan.

"We're not crazy about Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra either. It was also inaccurate. I don't know where you get the idea that we are happy that she played the role," Youssef said, adding that the actor was banned from Egypt after the release of the film due to her pro-Israel stance.

Egypt's reaction to the Netflix series: Jada Pinkett Smith's Queen Cleopatra has naturally caused an uproar among Egyptians because of the show's claims of Cleopatra's black African ancestry. Egyptians have been keen on expressing their disapproval of the same.

  • Responding to the controversy surrounding Netflix's docudrama, Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities declared that based on "bas-reliefs and statues," Cleopatra was "white-skinned."

  • Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary even filed a lawsuit against Netflix with a public prosecutor with the intention of getting the streaming platform banned in the country for promoting Afrocentrism.

  • An online petition was signed by over 8,000 people accusing the Netflix show of rewriting history.

Addressing the charges of "historical falsification," SCA Secretary General Mostafa Waziri said in his statement, "The appearance of the heroine is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy, especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work, which requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified," Deadline reported.
Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

A tweet shared with the "Egypt for Egyptians" hashtag on Twitter.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

  • Young Egyptians have created a viral campaign against the Netflix show, with the hashtag "Egypt for Egyptians."

  • In this campaign, people have been sharing a split image of their own face with that of the ancient Egyptian figures, to highlight similarities between today's Egyptians and the ancient Egyptians.

  • As a result of the backlash, Netflix had to turn the comments off on the trailer for Queen Cleopatra on YouTube.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

So, How Did the Makers React?

Upon receiving such heavy backlash against Queen Cleopatra's release, the makers of the docudrama responded to the criticism in a statement given to Tudum. They highlighted the emphasis of the show on Cleopatra as a powerful woman rather than the colour of her skin.

Jada Pinkett Smith's 'Queen Cleopatra' is currently streaming on Netflix.

Adele James in and as Queen Cleopatra.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

"The aim of African Queens has always been to uncover the hidden histories of powerful women from the past and what made them leaders that we still talk about today. Working with leading historians and experts including Shelley Haley (Professor of Classics and African Studies, Hamilton College) and Dr Sally-Ann Ashton (Cleopatra scholar), we explore Cleopatra's story as a queen, strategist, ruler of formidable intellect as well as a woman whose heritage is the subject of great debate."
The producers of Queen Cleopatra told Tudum.

"Her 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," the producers added.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

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