Netflix's Cleopatra director speaks out after backlash over casting

Tina Gharavi

‘Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians, it seems to really matter’

The director behind Netflix’s new series Queen Cleopatra has spoken out after the casting of a Black actress led to a lawyer trying to sue the streaming service.

Mahmoud al-Semary submitted a case Sunday via the Public Prosecutor last week in an attempt to shut the streaming service down in Egypt over the series due to air early next month.

English actress, Adele James, plays Cleopatra.

The lawyer claims the docudrama violates media laws and aims to “erase the Egyptian identity”

A top archaeologist insisted Cleopatra was “light-skinned, not black”, the BBC reported, but the producer, Jada Pinkett Smith, has suggested “her heritage is highly debated” and James had said: “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.” James made the comment in a Twitter post earlier this month where she also shared screenshots of abusive messages she had received.

Queen Cleopatra director, Tina Gharavi, explained and defended the casting choices in an article for Variety on Friday.

In the piece, the BAFTA-nominated writer and director, recalled seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra in the 1963 film and feeling as a child that the image was “not right”.

“With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?,” she asked.

Noting that “the chance of [Cleopatra] being white [was] somewhat unlikely”, Gharavi began the hunt for “the right performer” to play the queen.

She continued: “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.”

When it came to casting James, who is biracial, Gharavi felt she’d found an actor who “could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength”.

The director noted that Cleopatra’s heritage had been attributed “at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians”, and questioned whether the backlash was not not just about her directing “a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black”.

She questioned whether it is because “I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”

Gharavi said as to whether Cleopatra was Black, “we don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor.”

She continued: “We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colourism, and the internalised white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.

“Most of all, we need to realise that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than it is about who we are.”

Pinkett Smith has aid she wanted to tell the story because “we don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens”.

Netflix’s companion website Tudum reported February that the choice to cast James was “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race”.

Mahmoud al-Semary has described the docudrama as a “crime”, blamed the Netflix management team, and has stated that he wants legal action to be taken against the people who made it, Egypt Independent reported.

“Most of what Netflix platform displays do not conform to Islamic and societal values and principles, especially Egyptian ones,” the complaint reads, the newspaper said.

The case reportedly states that the docudrama promotes Afrocentrism and contradicts Egyptian history.

The complaint continues: “In order to preserve the Egyptian national and cultural identity among Egyptians all over the world there must be pride in the makings of such work.”

Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian antiquities minister, claimed that portraying Cleopatra as a Black woman is “falsifying facts”, and said: “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was blonde, not Black.”

Zahi Hawass, a prominent Egyptologist and former antiquities minister, told the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper: “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.”

Hawass said the only rulers of Egypt known to have been black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC).

“Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilisation is black,” he added and called on Egyptians to take a stand against the streaming giant.”

According to the synopsis for the docudrama: “As Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra fights to protect her throne, family and legacy in this docuseries featuring reenactments and expert interviews.”

Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and became the last queen of a Greek-speaking dynasty founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy. She succeeded her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC. Afterwards, Egypt fell under Roman domination. The identity of Cleopatra’s mother is not known, and historians say it is possible that she, or any other female ancestor, was an indigenous Egyptian or from elsewhere in Africa.

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