Nothing divides an online and TV audience more these days than the ethnicity of actors playing certain roles. Netflix now finds itself in hot water over a new drama-documentary series of the life of Cleopatra with black British actress Adele James in the lead role. Much of the fury has emanated from Egypt. But racist trolls have also been busy on social media. So, what exactly is the perceived problem with Cleopatra and her ethnicity?
Quick recap of history
Let’s try and work out who is right and who is wrong with regards to this bust up over the Netflix series, Queen Cleopatra? Hopefully some history can give us the answer…
Our starting point should be that ancient Egypt – and ancient Greece – and ancient Rome – and ancient Carthage – etc, etc, etc – were part of an inter-connected Mediterranean world. Over the last 1500 years, we’ve increasingly come to regard the southern coast of the Mediterranean as being something very different to the northern coast. One side Christian. The other side Muslim. One side Europe. The other side Africa. A relatively narrow sea has become an immense dividing line between two worlds.
But go back two, three, four thousand years and that band of water was criss-crossed continuously. Trade, war, and politics sent ships back and forth. And with ships went ideas, people, and knowledge. The religion of ancient Egypt influenced beliefs around the Levant, Asia Minor, and Greece. The goddess Isis was worshiped in Rome with thousands of devotees.
Our “modern” racialised view of the Mediterranean world based on skin colour breaks down the further back you go. A Greek colony might be set up on the coast of Libya or Egypt. Seafarers from the Levant made a home in Algeria and traded as far afield as Cornwall in south-west England. Nobody thought – hang on a moment, your skin colour prevents you from turning up in our neighbourhood.
Ancient Egypt was constantly under attack. Invaders included the mysterious “sea peoples”, then later the Kushites who spawned the dynasty of “black Pharaohs” from what is now Sudan. The Persian Empire (centred on modern Iran and Iraq) stormed into Egypt reducing it to vassal status. They in turn were overwhelmed by Alexander the Great’s unstoppable Macedonian surge creating an enormous new empire stretching from modern Greece, through Egypt, across Persia, and into India. After Alexander’s death at an early age, his empire was divided between leading Macedonian generals with Ptolemy getting Egypt.
Being a smart politician, Ptolemy and all his successors – also called Ptolemy – developed a hybrid Greek-Egyptian identity, convincing the local population that though their new pharaohs were of Greek extraction, they were respectful of the local culture and beliefs. Many of the “ancient Egyptian” temples you see in Egypt today in good condition are Ptolemaic – dating to the last three centuries before Christ.
The greatest contribution of the Ptolemaic rulers was the founding and expansion of the city of Alexandria, named after Alexander of course. This became a magnificent centre of learning. It was also a place where Egyptians, Greeks, and a large Jewish population mixed, inter-married, and in intellectual and religious terms, fed off each other. Not that tensions didn’t flare up and even lead to full-scale rioting between the communities.
Nevertheless, we can still say categorically that Ptolemaic Egypt was a veritable melting pot.
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The false dichotomy: Greek versus African Cleopatra
Which brings us to Cleopatra VII. Number seven as there had been six Cleopatras before her. She was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. But to hear some historians and YouTube self-appointed experts, you would think she had a Greek passport, blonde hair, blue eyes, and milky white skin.
This provokes a furious counter-argument that she was 100% African and that racist interpretations of history have de-Africanised her because of perceptions that a black woman couldn’t have been a great leader at any period in the past. When the truth suggests otherwise.
The problem with this stormy row over the Netflix series Queen Cleopatra is that it imposes today’s identity politics on to a past that wouldn’t have recognised these distinctions. It opens up yet another culture war divide. Positions become so entrenched and suspicions raised to such stellar levels that the real history is lost. Worse, the genuine Cleopatra sinks without trace.
So now we have familiar accusations from all sides of being “erased” or “washed” out of history or allegations of “wokeness”. Noticeably, much of the current ire about the Netflix series is coming out of Egypt where local commentators have accused Afro-centric accounts of inferring that modern Egyptians somehow stole the country from its rightful black African owners. One Egyptian lawyer is even suing Netflix.
The response from the other side is that Cleopatra has been whitewashed – along with many figures from ancient history. When a black actor plays a historic figure, it sends critics into meltdown. But they never objected in the past to a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Swedish born Max Von Sydow, for example, was one of several very non-semitic, Hollywood Jesuses nailed to a cross.
And in the 1960s, we had Liz Taylor playing Cleo with her real-life hubby Richard Burton, depicting Mark Antony, continuing their marital breakdown in dramatised form. That bombastic version of Cleopatra’s life is – in my humble view – one of the most boring sword-and-sandals movies ever made. One great entrance scene doesn’t excuse hours of tedium.
The golden age of Hollywood was notorious for excluding Middle East, black, and Asian actors from roles that were manifestly not white. Who can forget Anthony Quinn as Kublai Khan? Or a blacked up Laurence Olivier as Othello – yes, that really happened. Rudolf Valentino as an Arab sheikh. And my personal favourite for awful racial mis-casting has to be Robert Morley and James Mason as Chinese nobles in the 1965 Genghis Khan movie. A decade earlier, another version of the Genghis Khan story had John Wayne in the lead role!!
And the real Cleopatra?
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. The Ptolemaic dynasty had been in power for 250 years. That’s the entire history of the United States in terms of duration. Although the myth was perpetuated of a pure – and incestuous – Macedonian bloodline, the rulers had children by concubines from different backgrounds. Given the extent of the Ptolemaic empire, women at court would have come from as far afield as modern Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Israel, Greece, etc.
There is certainly a compelling suggestion – though not hard evidence – that Cleopatra was either half or quarter Egyptian. She spoke the local tongue, which may have been learned from her real mother – according to some scholars.
Worth also noting that Cleopatra had no hesitation compromising her Macedonian heritage with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – giving both foreign, non-Macedonian men children. Her daughter by Mark Antony – Cleopatra Selene – went on to become a powerful queen in north-west Africa, marrying King Juba of Mauretania.
Adele James should ignore the critics
The actor playing Cleopatra in the new Netflix series, Adele James, is a great British talent. Nobody doubts her ability to bring the story to life and dominate the screen. Some of the comments posted on to her Twitter account have not just been borderline racist – they’ve crossed the border into full-on racism. The tweeters involved, it should be said, are very obviously manufactured trolls.
One British periodical asked why Netflix is “pretending” Cleopatra was black. The response is easy enough. Why has Hollywood and TV all over the world “pretended” that other historical figures of the past were white, heterosexual, etc – when either the jury is out or they palpably were not. Why is the indignation so one-sided?
One thing we can be certain of – Cleopatra and her ethnicity will continue to be a depressing battleground for a long while yet!