Netflix Under Fire for ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Documentary Casting

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Netflix Under Fire for ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Documentary Casting

The trailer for the next documentary in Jada Pinkett Smith‘s series of African Queens on Netflix dropped last week to huge controversy from social media users and news outlets across Egypt, Greece, and the Arab world. The documentary, Queen Cleopatra, explores the life of the iconic Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. However, the largest point of contention lies in the casting of British actress, Adele James, as the titular character. Heated debates have begun online about Cleopatra’s heritage and about the responsibility that filmmakers and producers have when depicting history.

Critics argue that the series is riddled with historical falsifications, and most specifically, with the casting of James, creates misconceptions about the origins of the infamous Egyptian queen. Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawass, has criticized the show for being historically inaccurate and “completely false.”

Furthermore, a petition to have the documentary removed from Netflix had already amassed a staggering 60,000 signatures on change.org before it was removed by the platform.

Cleopatra Controversy
THE ARCHAEOLOGIST

According to historians, Cleopatra VII was the descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian-Greek general who ruled Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty when it was part of Alexander the Great‘s empire. The Ptolemy family tree is well-documented, and Cleopatra’s lineage is recorded as being primarily Greek with a little bit of Persian due to her family intermarrying with the Seleucid Dynasty at one point. It is also important to note that Cleopatra’s lineage consists almost entirely of inbreeding, which is a practice Ptolemy I adopted from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs who married their sisters and sister-cousins in order to keep the purity of their bloodline within the ruling family.

Thus, when one commentator in the trailer says, “I don’t care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was black,” it is problematic for historians who see it as historical revisionism, as well as people who do not want to see their own racial identity or cultural history misrepresented when depicting one of the most important figures of North African history. On the other hand, others have joined the debate contesting the accuracy of Cleopatra’s heritage as well as emphasizing the importance of seeing black representation in history, which for too long has been Eurocentric. But as one Egyptian TikTok user pointed out, if Pinkett Smith is looking to tell stories of African Queens, there are several powerful Egyptian queens James would be perfect playing like Ahhotep, Hatshepsut, and Nefertiti.

James, for her part, has responded to the criticism in a tweet by saying, “Just FYI, this kind of behavior 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 & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be! 🕺🏽🕺🏽🕺🏽”

Netflix has yet to comment on the controversy, and Queen Cleopatra is due to air on the streaming platform on May 10.

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