Netflix sparks debate in Egypt after portraying Cleopatra as Black in series narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith

Netflix said biracial actor Adele James had been cast in ‘a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race’

Isobel Lewis
Friday 21 April 2023 07:47 BST
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Netflix has found itself at the centre of a debate over the casting of Cleopatra in a new documentary series.

Arriving on the streaming service in May, the four-part documentary Queen Cleopatra (a part of the African Queens series) will investigate the life of the Egyptian ruler.

The series is being narrated by actor Jada Pinkett Smith, who said that she wanted to use the show to “represent Black women”.

“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens… 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,” she told Netflix’sTudum in February.

In Queen Cleopatra, the ruler is portrayed by Casualty star Adele James, who is biracial. Her casting has sparked debate in Egypt, due to the contested nature of the real-life Cleopatra’s racial identity.

Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC, succeeding her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC.

The identity of Cleopatra’s mother is unknown, leading historians to suggest that she may have been Egyptian or from another part of Africa. Others, however, have suggested that her mother may have been Greek as her race was never documented.

On Sunday (16 April), days after the trailer for Queen Cleopatra was released, lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor take “the necessary legal measures” and block access to Netflix’s services in Egypt.

James (left) as Cleopatra

Discussing the Netflix show, Egypt’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass told Egyptian press (via BBC News): “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black.”

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Sharing screenshots of racist abuse she has received on Twitter, James wrote last week: “Just FYI, this kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my account. You will be blocked without hesitation!!!

“If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do and engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”

Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra does not ignore the debate over Cleopatra’s heritage.

The broadcaster said that James’s casting was “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race”.

“During the time of her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial,” it said. “Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known. Some speculate she was a native Egyptian woman while others say she was Greek.”

Sally Ann Ashton, an academic interviewed for the series, said: “Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems strange to insist on depicting her as wholly European.

“Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women, they would’ve been African, and this should be reflected in contemporary representations of Cleopatra.”

Queen Cleopatra is released on Netflix on 10 May.

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