Cleopatra’s African Heritage in Netflix Docudrama Sparks Uproar in Egypt

By Nick Vivarelli
Apr 20, 2023

Netflix’s upcoming docudrama “Queen Cleopatra” in which Britain’s Adele James, who is of mixed heritage, plays the first-century Egyptian ruler as a queen with African roots is sparking an uproar in Egypt.

Egyptian academics are claiming that Cleopatra, who was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and belonged to a Greek-speaking dynasty, was of European descent and not Black. An Egyptian lawyer has reportedly filed a complaint demanding that legal measures are taken to block Netflix outright in Egypt, to prevent the show from airing. The complaint claims the docudrama, which drops May 10, violates the country’s media laws.

Netflix did not immediately comment.

Regarding the choice of casting Adele James as Cleopatra, Netflix’s promotional website Tudum in February quoted Jada Pinkett Smith, who is the show’s executive producer, as saying that since the queen’s heritage has been debated, it was “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.”

“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!,” she noted.

There is no doubt among scholars that Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek on her father Ptolemy XII’s side. But since the ethnic origin of her mother is not known, some historians say it’s possible that the Egyptian ruler’s mother was African and, therefore, that she could have been of mixed heritage.

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Last week’s trailer drop for “Queen Cleopatra” has caused a stir in Egypt where Zahi Hawass, a prominent Egyptologist, was quoted by the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper as strongly disputing the possibility that Cleopatra was of mixed race. “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black,” he said.

Meanwhile, actor Adele James has taken to Twitter to tell critics: “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.”

Debates over how Cleopatra is represented on screen aren’t new. Plans for a movie that was set to be initially directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Israeli actor Gal Gadot as the iconic Egyptian queen prompted debate, with critics saying the time had come for the role to go to an Arab or African actor. The movie has not been made.

 

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