Just a few days after Netflix released the promotional trailer for its upcoming docudrama ‘Queen Cleopatra’, set to air on 10 May, a heated debate has emerged on social media, sparked by the casting of a dark-skinned actress in the role of Cleopatra.
Although the series has not yet aired, several users have accused Netflix of promoting historical inaccuracies and cultural appropriation with many calls emerging to ban Netflix.
Wtf why are they trying to make cleopatra black?! That’s not right. BAN NETFLIX— Truman Burbank (@DetroitCollect) April 14, 2023
Critics say that since Netflix has labelled it a documentary, that it should have relied on established facts to tell the story of Cleopatra — an ancient queen who ruled from 51 BC to 30 BC.
She was the last of the seven monarchs of the Ptolemaic-Macedonian dynasty that ruled over Egypt at that time. Because of Cleopatra’s association to this dynasty, Europeans commonly refer to her as the Greek Queen, which implies that she is of European origin.
Elizabeth Taylor photographed by Roddy McDowall on the set of Cleopatra (1963) pic.twitter.com/uaRKrjiaGS— David Rush (@dav1drush) April 10, 2023
On its part, Hollywood reinforced this image by casting British-American actress Elizabeth Taylor — who has white skin and coloured eyes — to play her in the famous 1963 film ‘Cleopatra’. However, this Western-promoted image is not rooted in any established historical fact.
On their part, Egyptians are also calling to ban the series with some even calling for an outright boycott of Netflix altogether. The associated drama and criticisms surrounding the docuseries has stirred debate over Cleopatra’s true origins and physical features.
Debate over Cleopatra’s origins
On 14 April 2023, the French Le Figaro published a report titled, Netflix Stirs Debate by Assigning the Role of Cleopatra to a Black Actress.
La représentation de Cléopâtre par une actrice noire dans une série Netflix crée la polémique. Beaucoup parlent d'une réécriture militante de l'histoire, voire d'une nouvelle expression de la cancel culture.April 14, 2023
In the report, the newspaper interviewed Maurice Sartre, a professor specialising in ancient Rome and the classical world and author of ‘Cléopâtre, un rêve de puissance’ (Cleopatra: A Dream of Authority).
The professor backs the theory that Cleopatra is a descendant of the Ptolemaian dynasty founded by King Ptolemy I — a former war general of Alexander the Great. He says, if Cleopatra was not of Egyptian origin, then her lineage is Hellenistic, albeit she became an Egyptian woman through living in the land of Egypt.
Le Figaro notes that this theory is not new. In 2009, the BBC produced a documentary series on Cleopatra where the hypothesis of her potential African blood was first presented. The hypothesis was based on forensic research of Princess Arsinoe IV, who was Queen Cleopatra’s half-sister.
The princess was buried in Turkey, and studies conducted on her skull revealed that she has an African lineage, which indicates that Cleopatra is of the same descent.