Posted on December 13, 2023

Denzel Washington’s Casting as Hannibal in Netflix Film Sparks Race Controversy in Tunisia

Lorenzo Tondo, The Guardian, December 11, 2023

A decision to cast black actor Denzel Washington as the ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal in an upcoming Netflix film has sparked a small but heated debate in Tunisia, the military general’s birthplace.

After a similar controversy on race and representation in nearby Egypt over a Netflix docudrama about Cleopatra, Tunisian newspapers, social media and even the halls of parliament have seen discussion on the skin tone of the long-dead leader.

French-language Tunisian news outlet La Presse published an article saying the casting created “a historical error”, while on social media, some users accused Netflix of promoting “woke culture”. An online petition signed by 1,300 people urged Netflix to “cancel its pseudo-documentary” and called on the ministry of culture to “take action against the attempt to steal our history”.

Hannibal, born in Carthage, near modern-day Tunis, is considered by many to be one of history’s greatest military leaders. During the war against the Romans in 218BC, he led his troops and African war elephants across a high pass in the Alps to strike at Rome from the north. For 15 years, he ravaged the land and people, but he never managed to take Rome, and was eventually forced back to north Africa.

Hannibal’s skin colour is not known. Historians of the ancient Mediterranean world largely agree that he was of Phoenician descent – a region encompassing modern Lebanon and Syria – although he lived during a time of great empires and intermixing.

The issue of race has been brought to the fore in Tunisia recently by the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into the country. President Kais Saied was accused of making an “imaginary enemy” in February when he alleged, without evidence, that migrants were part of a wider campaign to make majority-Arab Tunisia “purely African”.

After Washington’s role was announced by Netflix, Tunisian MP Yassine Mami questioned the culture minister, Hayet Ketat Guermazi, about the project in parliament.

“The ministry should take a position on the subject,” said Mami, who is also the president of the committee on tourism, culture, and services. “This is about defending Tunisian identity and listening to the reactions of civil society,” he said.

Guermazi, speaking in the assembly, said her ministry was instead focused on negotiating with Netflix to shoot some sequences of the film in Tunisia.

“It’s fiction; it’s their right. Hannibal is a historical figure, even if we’re all proud that he’s Tunisian … What could we do?” said Guermazi. “What matters to me is that they shoot even one sequence in Tunisia and mention it. We want Tunisia to become a platform for foreign films again.”

Earlier this year, Netflix cast Adele James, an actor of mixed heritage, as Cleopatra, which prompted the Egyptian antiquities ministry to publish a statement declaring that the pharaonic leader had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics”.

Netflix and Washington, who has previously played black US civil rights activist Malcolm X and Shakespeare’s Scottish Macbeth, have not commented.