“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks”. —Winston Churchill.
And while I’m using this turn of phrase only to illustrate the more austere, ancient Greek, Delphic maxim “Khronou Pheidou” (Use Time Sparingly), I would like as it is fitting and somewhat necessary in our times, to point out the obvious: that I am not in fact equating humans with dogs; however the point that anything as incoherent and nonsensical as a dog’s bark is a waste of time to address with any kind of effort, is valid. But unfortunately, this ‘bark’ is different.
The embattled director of Netflix’s new brain-fart ‘Cleopatra’, despite the much-deserved criticism that her ‘work’ has warranted her, decided to double down on her ignorance and put the blame on the world, and not her own poor choices and lack of knowledge as was expected.
‘From their fruits, you shall know them’ indeed (Matthew 7: 16-17)
In this entry, I will address the word vomit that she has produced and provide an answer to whatever point one can construe from it all.
For the record, her ‘answer’ to her critics can be found in its published entirety here.
So let us proceed with untangling this hairy mess that she wrought for herself and the world and provide an answer to her implied accusations.
‘It is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.’
For those who do not know Cleopatra’s family tree, the following YouTube video by Lady of the Library is a very easily digestible presentation of Cleopatra the VII’s family tree where she also attempts to show where the anchor or the Afrocentric argument sets its hooks in.
The Afrocentric argument as structured does not so much reveal ‘intentionally hidden’ spots but rather, takes advantage of two silent areas in Cleopatra’s ancestry and proceeds to perform two massive leaps in logic in order to further its narrative of a global conspiracy to ‘clean out the black’ from the historical record.
For those who do not want to sit through a 22 minute monologue (although highly recommended) the following article by Duane W. Roller, author of the Book ‘Cleopatra: A Biography’ is another excellent and concise choice that you can find here.
Looking at the historical evidence and her family’s ‘traditions’ and cultural practices as well as artifacts and coins from around her time, it is far more likely that Cleopatra, would have not fallen too far from the tree.
To make a bigger jump in logic than is necessary and theorize with no concrete evidence that Cleopatra would have looked like a woman of a different phenotype altogether compared to her ancestors is the very first error that a person ignorant of the facts would commit.
And while certainly we can agree that Elizabeth Taylor, despite her talents as an actress, was a poor choice for Cleopatra phenotypically, to go to the other end of the spectrum and portray her as Elizabeth’s polar opposite is not any better a choice by a mile.
But do we have any idea what she may have looked like? As a matter of fact, we do!
Let’s look at the Berlin bust for example, allegedly depicting Cleopatra, sculpted around the time when she was alive:
And here is an attempt at coloring in the same marble bust while sticking to her likeness as much as possible.
Of course, variations on color do exist, and one can give her a darker skin tone as would probably be expected simply on account of living and having grown up in Egypt.
But the point here is not so much the color of her skin; rather, her overall visage. Clearly, she does not look at all like Elizabeth Taylor. She looks like a typical run-of-the-mill mediterranean girl, the likes of whom you will see everywhere in the region, from southern Spain to the Levant and Morocco to Egypt.
And here’s a tetradrachm coin, minted during Antony’s and Cleopatra’s alliance. Granted, her face is portrayed a little more masculine here, and her profile as depicted is not her best angle, but one can see clearly that the person shown here does not look anything like Elizabeth Taylor, nor does she look like Adele James either -skin tone not withstanding.
And another coin:
We can go on like this unnecessarily for a while but it would be pointless. After all, depictions in many forms of ancient art were stylized and not true to life until the Roman period (even though…this is the Roman period…). Relying on iconography alone, we would be committing the error that many Afrocentrists make: that of looking at depictions as the sole and definitive source of evidence without any regard of any context.
These coins are used here as supportive evidence and not primary. Our primary source of evidence is as usual, the historical data such as her well-established family tree, albeit for two ‘silent spots’.
The first one is the ancestry of her father’s mother and the second, is the ancestry of her own mother, whose name is not mentioned in the records. However following the established genealogical patterns of the Ptolemies, we would not go amiss in making an educated guess that is far more likely than inserting a genetically subsaharan ancestor: that Cleopatra VII’s mother was Cleopatra V who was ordered to exile as indeed many historians believe.
The coins, minted during her own lifetime, seem to support this more endogamous ancestry and they seem to accentuate her mediterranean looks such as the presence of an aquiline, ridged nose.
And while we cannot be certain, we have more cause to surmise that even if, Cleopatra had Egyptian blood, that was less likely to have come from someone who would have looked identifiably sub-saharan but rather more like every other northern African and Berber person common to the region. Feel free to look up such images yourself.
Tina’s assumption that just because she could not have looked like Elizabeth Taylor does not mean that she must have looked like Adele. Tina, here projects an American understanding of race in a foul dichotomy that echoes different times.
“If it’s not White, it’s a ”
This is not at all how the world works. It’s how America works.
“Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.”
What she fails to understand —or perhaps she never researched it— is that Cleopatra’s family tree is severely inbred up to her great-grandparents and NOT eight generations away.
Another gross misunderstanding is to suggest, informed by modern American opinions on the Greeks that ‘Greek’ has always equalled ‘white’ therefore Cleopatra depicted as Greek would equal to her being portrayed as ‘white’. Or that there’s only one kind of ‘white’.
‘After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.’
Where does one begin with this one?
The fact that despite the evidence to the contrary such as Cleopatra’s depictions in Greek garb and her first language being Greek, she feels safe to tell us with certainty what she really looked like?
To presume her cultural identity and sense of ethnicity despite Cleopatra knowingly presenting herself visually as a Greek ruler wearing a diadem?
Or that Cleopatra herself was betrothed to her own brother like almost all Ptolemies before her, before she dispatched him?
The Ptolemies were a colonizing, foreign minority and as a consequence of that, they went out of their way to keep the family’s fortune and power concentrated in their own dynasty and sociocultural group. Why would ANY Ptolemy, after generations of inbreeding chose to produce heirs with a native person and risk the dynasty slipping back into Egyptian hands that would have had far more legitimacy?
Cleopatra, was rumored to have been the first of her line to even speak the local language, let alone mix with the locals.
What sort of assimilation is Tina suggesting here by juxtaposing a foreign ruling house so hellbent on power that they would marry, kill or exile their own relatives and offspring —as a clinical routine— with second generation, modern Greek immigrants who had to assimilate and blend willingly into American ‘whiteness’ in order to survive?
If by now, her cultural blindness, poor deduction skills and political biases are not clear, I don’t know what would convince the average reader of her unsuitability to handle the subject.
‘Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress. For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right.’
Here Tina makes her motivations and biases explicitly known.
Her issue really seems to be that Cleopatra, no matter whether it is how she has been handled by Hollywood before, or how she is seen through the archaeological and historical record, does not side very well with her own, modern, political ideology and preconceptions.
Tina was and is on a mission to rewrite the record not so that it reflects the truth with more accuracy but rather to insert her own political biases.
Her quest is not to educate with facts but to replace those with ideologically motivated and inspired fictions while still attempting to present those as ‘facts’. Alternative facts —a new American favorite!
‘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.’
First and foremost, I take great exception to her use of the word ‘sister’.
Tina is Iranian.
Tina, in today’s America is considered ‘white’.
As such, she should know better not to appropriate a word that women of color use for one another.
In fact, Tina is so ‘white’ that the ancient Greeks described her ancestors the Persians as more ‘pale skinned’ than themselves!
As the Persians liked to cover their bodies and the Greeks to expose them at the gymnasium, a tanned body for man was a sign of virility, athleticism and beauty for the Greeks. The Persians would have had more reason to conceal a potential subsaharan Cleopatra, the Greeks not so much.
Tina here is consciously appropriating language that does not belong to her in ANY way, in order to approximate and utilize women of color as an audience for her new ‘documentary’.
The second exception I take is with the assumption that ‘melanated’ equals only ‘black’ as we understand it in modern terms.
Is this gentleman ‘unmelanated’? He certainly does not look African yet as he appears in this picture, he’s even darker than Adele James.
Before one cries ‘racism’, I am not making a point FOR colorism or comparing shades of dark skin here.
There is method to my madness. I have chosen to contrast Adele with an Indian man because Strabo, a Greek historian, philosopher and geographer from Cleopatra’s time, described the Egyptians as being the color of Indians.
Are Indians even by today’s standards ‘unmelanated’?
So why are we not going with the historical sources and references here, but instead choose to defend the inaccurate, afrocentric argument that melanated and ‘Egyptian’ can mean one thing, and that is ‘black’?
I am in no way, shape or form using this line of argument to justify the ‘need’ of many western europeans to color everything ‘white’. To me, and many other Greeks that ‘need’ is just as problematic and offensive for many reasons closer to our own lived experience in this ‘black and white’ world. Cleopatra to me, whatever her skin tone was, is a Greek Ptolemy first, before her ‘race’ is even brought into the discussion. But I am baffled by the persistence to make her look a specific way, and that way makes her Greekness nothing but an obscure and passing mention.
A good piece on this, is the following by fellow Hellene, Angelo Nasios that you can find here.
Nor am I going to discuss or negate any modern Egyptian’s investment to ‘whiteness’ as that has come to be defined -again- in American terms. It exists, it’s there. We know and we are aware. Many of us are still not clued in to how ‘whiteness’ has claimed and appropriated us, bodies, cultures and everything in-between.
But the question I am going to throw back at Tina, is very simple:
“WHY NOT GET A GREEK OR EGYPTIAN ACTRESS TO PORTRAY CLEOPATRA?”
Just for shits and giggles I guess, it would be nice for the descendant cultures of the region to see themselves reflected in their own cultural and historical narratives for a change, without the need for a ‘white - can- pass - for - Greek’ or a ‘black’ actress who is styled and modeled to eclipse her Greekness.
Why do ‘white’ and ‘black’ actresses —and their respective complexes, agendas and attempts to one-up each other in the cultural mess that slavery and racism have gotten them into— take priority over Mediterranean girls? How do we even begin to classify the needs and wants of ethnic groups and who is deciding on the urgency of each one?
Or are we all, I guess ‘white’ to you now and therefore you need to overcompensate for our ‘bleaching’ at the hands of American racial angst by pretending that we are not there, and if we are, we must be ‘invaders’ as the Afrocentric argument goes?
When will Greek and Egyptian girls see themselves represented in the stories of their cultures? Or are they not quite dark enough to qualify as a wronged and therefore protected minority for the newest liberal American project?
I have questions, Tina…
Tina then continues her misinformation campaign and blatant lies and she tops it all off with a now clichéd straw man.
‘What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.’
Which historians? The ‘unbiased’ panel of guilt-ridden ‘academics’ you are likely to have invited or serious scholars at the best history and archaeology departments of the world? Is this supposed to be an actual historical documentary or the equivalent of ‘Ancient Aliens’ for woke people?
This statement is simply a blatant lie and she offers zero citations and peer-reviewed evidence for it. She has nothing but her own interpretation of poorly understood historical studies and questions.
“The HBO series “Rome” portrayed one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a sleazy, dissipated drug addict, yet Egypt didn’t seem to mind. Where was the outrage then? But portraying her as Black?”
The straw men, confusion and mental gymnastics keep coming. The assumption that women, women proximal to deadly raw power, did not have to survive a cut throat, murderous world and utilize all their charms and assets in order to live, let alone thrive, is braindead and is based off of an abrahamic, Christian/Muslim morality that neither Greece, nor Rome subscribed to or lived by, all the way through the middle ages and beyond. What she sees as ‘sleazy’ may have been an act of political acumen EXPECTED by a struggling regent.
Anyone, who has studied Roman history including ‘byzantine’ (more correctly: Eastern Roman) history will tell Tina of the incest, murder, sex scandals and yes, even addiction, madness and every other human woe and moral pitfall one can imagine.
Tina, has not had to live through those times.
Whatever her personal struggles, she speaks like the pampered child of modern times, where womanhood is supposed to only be experienced and celebrated as a constant high.
Women are supposed to be depicted only as powerful, uninhibited, heroic. But she does not seem to process that this idea stands courtesy of a relatively safe, modern society (certainly safer than Roman times).
Cleopatra murdered without hesitation but completely out of raw necessity just like others in her family had done. She dispatched her own brother to whom she was betrothed and her sister.
She utilized her charms with the strongmen of Rome in order to maintain her regency but perhaps to even save her own life for as long as she could.
That she would not have suffered mentally by such necessities because she was a ‘strong black queen’ is nothing but a fetishized notion that Tina wants to flirt with, that is just as bad as Cleopatra’s overt sexual fetishization over the centuries.
But of course, Tina needs another straw man here, in order for her narrative to make sense.
The fact that previous depictions did not cause such ire, has nothing to do with her own poor choices. If we don’t like her work, it all boils down only to some unexamined ‘anti-blackness’.
‘Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am okay with this.’
Tina here makes another braindead choice, informed by out-of-touch, AMERICAN, panafricanist perspective about a part of the world where people —and yes, that does include Greece— identify with their ethnicity first before anyything else.
The term ‘ethnicity’ of course here is used in the Greek sense of the word, whereby an ‘ethNos’ is a community of people with whom one shares ‘ethos’ and ‘ethea’ (customs, laws, habits) and not a geographical location or necessarily genetics.
And that’s why in our part of the world, people had no problem conquering each other, often in brutal ways. Did the Spartans ever pause and think that the Athenians were ‘white’ and ‘Greek’ just like them and therefore they should leave them alone? Or maybe, they would have shown such kindness and solidarity to the helots on the same grounds?
There are other perspectives on life, identity and the world, Tina!
It would behoof you to look into those more closely instead of making assumptions as to how other nations SHOULD view themselves.
They don’t need you to show them how to see themselves, especially, when you demonstrate such poor understanding of how the world works today, let alone back in Cleopatra’s day. And OK is all you can be with it.
‘While shooting, I became the target of a huge online hate campaign. Egyptians accused me of “blackwashing” and “stealing” their history. Some threatened to ruin my career — which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much! No amount of reasoning or reminders that Arab invasions had not yet happened in Cleopatra’s age seemed to stem the tide of ridiculous comments. Amir in his bedroom in Cairo wrote to me to earnestly appeal that “Cleopatra was Greek!” Oh, Lawd! Why would that be a good thing to you, Amir? You’re Egyptian.’
I wonder why you became the target of a huge online ‘hate’ campaign. Could it be your pathetic attempt at trying to tell people who they are?
Or maybe it is because you presume to tell them what they should care about?
Could it be the historical inaccuracies in your work?
Or maybe, it is the British accents that you cannot seem to shake off when it comes to portraying ancient peoples despite having no problem playing around at will with their looks, while hypocritically pretending to be ‘de-colonizing’ the narrative.
As to your failed jab of an ahistorical point that the Arab invasions had not yet happened at the time of Cleopatra, ergo Egypt was still ‘black’…
What can one say to this? Even IF, that was the case —and we know it wasn’t—the ‘white’ Greeks wrestled control of Egypt out of the hands of the even ‘paler’ Persians who had it for a good century.
Then they sat their olive buts on that throne for another 300 years of unfettered movement into Alexandria and Egypt more broadly before Cleopatra the VII was a glimmer in her father’s incestuous eyes as he shared his bed with his relatives.
And yet, those 400 years (almost as long as America has been around with ALL the demographic changes that have occurred and continue to occur) do not seem to factor in your ‘argument’. No, Egypt was ‘whitened’ much later by the Arabs —another ahistorical Afrocentric trope.
It could be that you do not seem to understand that Egyptians who are coming for you, have more of a problem with you engaging in a willful distortion of the facts of their history than the color of Cleopatra’s skin.
Maybe they like their history as it is. Warts and all. Maybe they do not wish to get caught up in this ‘black and white’ artificial dichotomy of mankind just because America has not sorted through its skeletons.
Or maybe they are tired and suspicious of everything that resembles a pre-amble to an attack on their sovereignty by angry ‘Hoteps’ from North Carolina telling them to leave their own country.
But of course, none of that matters. The narrative needs a boogeyman.
And no, nobody in their right mind would dismiss the fact that racism and anti-blackness do exist in the world, including in modern day Egypt.
It’s a vile disease of the mind that takes many forms and infects many cultures, not just America. But the fact that you are too quick to consider that over all other possible causes including your own incompetence and ignorance is indicative of what your motivations are.
So as a Greek person, I will tell you precisely what it is that bothers me about your ‘project’ and you will see that it has nothing to do with the artificial specter that you’re strawmaning here:
- Your project is ahistorical. Non factual, and ideologically motivated. It cannot, therefore be called a DOCUMENTARY -that is misleading.
Even African podcasters agree that your ‘experts’ have no case and that even that BBC documentary about Arsinoe (allegedly) that apparently is about to be referenced in your ‘documentary’ was a badly put-together, sensationalist piece of tat:
Regarding the controversy surrounding Netflix's Cleopatra, I've seen many people online spout the same argument. "Archaeologists exhumed Cleopatra's sister in 2009 and found out she had African DNA." Every single part of that statement is wrong, and this thread will discuss why. pic.twitter.com/TYijlsWK8x
— History of Africa Podcast (@Histofafrica) April 22, 2023
- Your project plucks Cleopatra deliberately from her world, the Hellenistic world of Egypt when Greek and Egyptian cultures had syncretized, producing a unique and intriguing civilization of its own. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy and that means of Greek Macedonian descent, she styled herself as a Greek, spoke Greek and she was the first Ptolemy regent to speak Egyptian. Her “Greekness” is brushed aside to make room for a different politicized narrative that is as anachronistic and as foreign to Cleopatra as it is to the Egyptians and the Greeks of today.
- It misses the mark entirely, in the era of representation, to right the wrongs of generations past, by ignoring the cultures that informed Cleopatra’s embodied existence; those of Greece and Egypt. Not those of Black America and Africa. Africa is a continent with MANY DIFFERENT cultures and phenotypes. By snatching her from the hands of the descendant cultures, you act like a true colonizer: infinitely more ‘woke’ and virtuously more ‘accomplished’ and therefore more ‘qualified’ to administrate over someone else’s estate and share it out to whomever you think should have it. In this case, and in true Hollywood fashion, ANYONE except the Greeks and the Egyptians. And of course they should not protest. Your vision, as an outsider, overrides their national, cultural and civilizational identities as perceived and structured by them as sovereign non-Americans.
- By portraying the Romans visually as ‘white’ and ptolemaic Egyptians as ‘black’ you apply anachronistically, historically inaccurate ‘americanisms’ to two cultures that are closer to each other geographically and culturally through their countless interactions than either one is to you and any American. And you do that in order to enhance the narrative of ‘encroaching white europeans’ versus ‘unadulterated, innocent and defensive black africans’. In effect, you are using Cleopatra for a political crusade that would not have reflected her own lived and historical experience or identity. You are engaging in blatant appropriation and demand that the ‘pesky natives’ say nothing about it. Not how that works.
- By featuring statements and opinions such as seen in the trailer like that of an elderly African American woman saying things to the effect of: “My grandmother always told me: do not listen to what they tell you in school; Cleopatra was black!” you promote ignorance which you market unashamedly to a population in America that has been left to its own devices — oftentimes in schools and communities forgotten by the state—suffering everything from lack of facilities and basic provisions to violence and disruption. By doing so, you contribute in their obstruction to access real facts by which they can assess a reality they have to navigate. Your ‘feel good’ piece does nothing but give them another ‘we were Kings and Queens’ soundbite to chew on as the juggernaut of white politics eliminates all knowledge of who they truly were before they were taken from their land, exploited, mixed around and ethnocided in order to become just ‘black’. But does it matter Tina? So long as your documentary succeeds, Netflix and you get paid, all is good in the world.
I could go on and on about how uninformed and brain-dead your work comes across but I guess it would suffice to quote you from your own ‘response’ to valid criticism: “Some threatened to ruin my career — which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much!”
I hope that after this deliberately politicized piece of tat that you have ‘created’ fizzles out of existence, you will find it in you to self-reflect humbly, as an adult might do, and refrain from ‘correcting’ history and societies you do not seem to understand.
This article first appeared on the Atreides Leonidas substack.
READ MORE: Palaiologue — The 2023 Attiki collection.