Controversy over Netflix series on Cleopatra: Egypt's queen is black

A lively controversy that has swept social media around the world over Netflix's new series dedicated to Cleopatra started in Greece: in "Queen Cleopatra," in fact, the queen of Egypt has black skin. And according to many, this would not be an accurate portrayal.

We don’t know if it will make as big a mark as the historic colossal that has gone down in Hollywood history as one of the most expensive (and longest-running) films in the history of cinema with the legendary pair of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in the roles of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, but without a doubt the documentary-series Queen Cleopatra that will airing on Netflix starting on May 10 and produced by Jada Pinkett even before the first episode starts is stirring up a great deal of debate that results in some of the most morally hateful controversy: skin color.

Indeed, the simple trailer for the series dedicated to the most famous pharaoh in history for personality and beauty, who in this TV version will be played by Adele James, who is black, was enough. The documentary-series was written by Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji and will have four episodes of 45 minutes each, and is part of a series of documentaries being produced by Pinkett on “African Queens.”

The question would seem trivial but it is not: in spite of Egypt’s geographical location on the African continent, the current historiography leaned mostly toward a Balkan origin since Cleopatra was descended from the Macedonian Ptolemy, son of Lake and general at the time of Alexander the Great (perhaps she was his half-brother). Ethnicity therefore of Caucasian origin. And in the collective imagination the image of beauty has always been associated with that of purity and the color white. In the previews released by Netflix, in addition to the images of the actors there are statements from various experts who have been called upon to talk about the history of Egypt, and one, unequivocally, turns on the attention: “My mother used to say: don’t pay attention to what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was black.” Considering that Queen Cleopatra is supposed to be a documentary (which only for the sake of usability has parts played by actors in settings of the time recreating episodes with scenes and dialogues) among historians and archaeologists the debate had been open for years but now it will inevitably be reopened with the revival of other theses as well, such as that of the well-known (to Italian audiences for the Voyager or Freedom broadcasts) Zahi Hawass for whom Cleopatra was directly Greek. For the Hellenic newspaper Greek City Times, the docu-series “promotes Afro-centrism, an ideology that promotes the idea of ’returning to Egypt, kicking out’ the Egyptians because they stole their culture and history.”

The point then would not be the empowerment of people of color in leading roles in important films, but rather the choice of the actress of color to make a historical case. Egyptians would not, however, appear to have been ’black’ according to the phenotype impersonated by actress Adele James (the typical face of Sub-Saharan Africa). The Pharaohs of Ptolemaic dynasty had skin on the pale, there was only a period of black Pharaohs with the Nubian dynasty (originating in present-day North Sudan), the 25th dynasty (Era of the Kingdom of Kush).

We will of course wait for the arguments but intact the producer explains the project this way in the post with which she launches the trailer, “We don’t often see or hear stories about black queens, so it is very important for me, as well as for my daughter and my community, to come to know them because there are so many. Cleopatra is a queen we know a lot about, but not her truth. She has been portrayed as a sexual being, excessive and corrupt. In reality she was a strategist, an intellect, a force of nature who fought to protect her kingdom.”

A petition had even been launched on calling for the cancellation of the documentary, which had gathered more than 62,000 signatures in just two days. Before it was “mysteriously removed,” as the Greek reporter reported.

All that remains is to wait and see how the documentary’s theses will scientifically affect international historiography. Undoubtedly, however, it is a good marketing coup to start, as Netflix has been doing a lot of it lately to get noticed....

Controversy over Netflix series on Cleopatra: Egypt's queen is black
Controversy over Netflix series on Cleopatra: Egypt's queen is black

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