Cleopatra Was Light-Skinned, Egypt Tells Netflix in Row Over Drama
Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, April 28, 2023
She was Egypt’s last Pharaoh, a legendary leader who according to popular belief ended her life by allowing a deadly cobra to bite her breast.
But more than 2,000 years after her death, the woman who had love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony has ignited a modern-day controversy over race and representation.
In Queen Cleopatra, a new four-part drama-documentary made by Netflix, the title role is played by Adele James, an actor of mixed heritage – a move that has enraged Egyptian experts who insist the pharaonic leader had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics”.
This week, the Egyptian antiquities ministry published a lengthy statement that included opinions from experts that, it said, agree on Cleopatra’s skin colour and facial features.
“Bas-reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof,” the statement said, embellishing its text with illustrations showing Cleopatra with European traits.
For Mostafa Waziri, head of the Supreme Antiquities Council, depicting the famous queen as black was nothing less than “a falsification of Egyptian history”.
He said there was nothing racist in this view, which is motivated by “defending the history of Queen Cleopatra, an important part of the history of Egypt in antiquity”.
Tudum, the official companion site to Netflix, earlier this week quoted the producers of the series as saying: “Her ethnicity is not the focus of [the series] 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.”
Jada Pinkett Smith, the American actor who was executive producer and narrator on the series, told Tudum: “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens, and that was really important for me … 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.”