Netflix Cleopatra Doc Slammed for Blackwashing by Egyptian Scholars

Netflix is accused of “trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is Black.”

“African Queens: Queen Cleopatra” is coming under fire for casting a Black biracial actress as the titular Greek-Egyptian ruler.

The docuseries, which premieres May 10, has been slammed for allegedly “blackwashing” the heritage of Queen Cleopatra VII. Egyptian scholars claim that Cleopatra, who was born in Egyptian city Alexandria in 69 BCE, was born of European descent and not Black. Scholars have confirmed that Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek on her father Ptolemy XII’s side but her mother’s ethnic origin is unknown. Actress Adele James portrays Cleopatra in the series.

Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the nation’s public prosecutor to request that Netflix be blocked in Egypt due to the promotion of “Afrocentric thinking” including “slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”

Al-Semary alleged that “Queen Cleopatra” violates Egyptian media laws. Egyptologist Zahi Hawass was also quoted by the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper saying that Cleopatra was most likely not of mixed race.

“This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black,” Hawass said (via BBC). Hawass accused Netflix of “trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is Black.”

Two petitions to “Cancel Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’” circulated with more than 88,000 signatures combined. IndieWire has reached out to Netflix for comment.

“Queen Cleopatra” is narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who recently told Netflix’s Tudum that the project was to “represent Black women.”

“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!” Pinkett Smith said. “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.”

Netflix noted on Tudum back in February that the “creative choice” to cast James in the titular role is a “nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.”

Egyptologist Sally-Ann Ashton was consulted by Netflix for the series and called it “strange” to showcase Cleopatra as solely 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,” Ashton said.

Lead actress James took to Twitter on April 13 to respond to backlash at her casting, writing, “Cleopatra was a queen, not a slave. If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”

Israeli actress Gal Gadot has been linked to a Cleopatra film helmed by Patty Jenkins. Gadot responded to claims that the ancient ruler was being whitewashed by her casting in December 2020.

“First of all, if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian,” Gadot told BBC Arabic. “We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.”

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