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Why some Egyptians are fuming over Netflix's Black Cleopatra

Cairo — As soon as Netflix dropped the trailer for its upcoming "docudrama" about ancient Egypt's Queen Cleopatra, drama started bubbling up online. The preview quickly drew criticism. Some Egyptians complained that the feature was appropriating their culture and rewriting their history, primarily because Cleopatra is portrayed by a Black woman in the film.

The movie, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith and starring biracial British actor Adele James as Queen Cleopatra, is set for release on May 10. It is the second part of a Netflix "docuseries" on African queens, focused on female rulers from the African continent.

"Queen Cleopatra," as portrayed by British actor Adele James in the Netflix "docudrama" set to release on May 10, 2023. Netflix

In the latest official response to the controversy, Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long statement at the end of April stressing that "Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features."

The statement criticized Netflix for casting James, whom the ministry said has "African features and dark skin," to play Cleopatra. 

Who was Cleopatra, and who's complaining?

Cleopatra was the last ruler of ancient Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty. She was the all-powerful queen for about two decades, until her death in 30 BC. Her story has been told in literature and by Hollywood for years, and while she's often portrayed primarily as a temptress, historians note that she was also very likely a "consummate politician."

Some critics of the upcoming Netflix version of her story have argued that, while ancient Egypt is often portrayed inaccurately by Hollywood, fiction is one thing, but anything presented as a documentary is another. 

Cleopatra, as portrayed in the 1963 Hollywood movie by Elizabeth Taylor. 20th Century Studios

"Since the film is classified as a documentary and not a drama, those making the film have to be accurate and it should be based on historical and scientific facts, to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified," the Egyptian Ministry said, stressing that "the rejection of the film before its screening was in defense of the history of Queen Cleopatra… and has nothing to do with racism."

An Egyptian lawyer filed a formal complaint against the film, asking the public prosecutor "to investigate and take all legal measures against the creators of this work and against the platform's management for participating in this crime, and ban the platform in Egypt." 

"We have known for thousands of years that Cleopatra is of Greek origin and was born in Egypt. This is a fact," Mahmoud El-Semiry, the lawyer who filed the complaint, told CBS News. "Our main objection is the falsification of these facts. It is not about being Black or White or even Yellow. Let's say they wanted to portray Cleopatra as a man, we would also object to that."

Does it matter if Netflix's Cleopatra is Black or White?

A feeling that Egypt must protect its cultural identity from appropriation, and that there are people actively trying to illegitimately claim it, appears to be the primary driving force behind the strong reaction to the Netflix feature. 

Some Egyptians believe the casting decision is part of an elaborate scheme, backed by Black American celebrities, to "blackwash" their ancient history. They view it as an overreach by the Afrocentrism movement and a bid by non-Egyptians to claim Egyptian heritage as their own. 

Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra VII, who was the last Queen of ancient Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty, ruled from 51 B.C. until her death in 31 B.C. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"I am against the film because it is pushing an Afrocentric agenda, regardless of the historical accuracy of whether Cleopatra was Black or White," Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna told CBS News. "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."

"The Afrocentrists are just a mirror of the Eurocentrists," argued Hanna."They're both racists and both inaccurate and incorrect."

"I understand why Egyptians are angry, but I reject any racist comments," Hanna told CBS News. "Egyptians were let down by their formal studies of their past. Such debates and critical issues are never part of the school curricula. That's why Egyptians have a very fragile understanding of their past."

What race was Cleopatra?

Ancient "Egyptians were all colors," according to Hanna. "Egypt was more of a culture than a race, and the idea of skin color is really irrelevant in the ancient world."

The antiquity ministry's statement said Cleopatra was descended from a Macedonian family that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, and as per customs of that time, kings married their sisters and kept their Macedonian race "pure" during this period. Many archeologists share the government's take on Egypt's ancient history, and leave no room for doubt about the queen's skin color.

But Hanna told CBS News the facts from more than 2,000 years ago were less clear.

"We do not know for sure whether Cleopatra was Black or White or even red, and we don't even know if she thought of herself as an Egyptian or not," said the archaeologist. "We have not discovered her tomb. We have not been left with any contemporary descriptions of her. We do not know who her mother was nor who her grandmother was." 

"We can argue about her complexion and whether she identified herself as Egyptian or not," she added. "But most likely, we will not find a real answer, because maybe it doesn't exist yet."

What does Adelle James think about the controversy?

James, who portrays the ancient queen, told the U.K.'s Glamour magazine in an interview published earlier this month that she expected the Netflix feature to generate a certain amount of discussion about race. 

"I did think people would be excited about it," she told the magazine. "I remember when I first got the audition and how excited I was that they were doing something like this in terms of the racial precedent, but also in terms of just humanizing her on so many other levels and her not being likened to this sexual temptress that she's been portrayed to be. 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 echoed Hanna's point, noting that "we just don't know" what Cleopatra's skin tone actually was, and adding that she felt she had "every right to have a shot at humanizing this incredible woman."

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