ANPE Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 and Adele James in 2023 as Cleopatra
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 19:27
There is a fuss in Egypt about a new Netflix docudrama that can be seen from next week: Queen Cleopatra. The British protagonist Adele James is a black woman and that, according to critics, is not in accordance with historical reality. But Dutch historians and art connoisseurs call it historically justifiable to ‘play’ with the color of Cleopatra.
Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud Al-Semari accuses Netflix of “wanting to erase Egyptian identity”. He has sued the streaming service in the hope that the series will not be broadcast. Former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass thinks the dark complexion is “totally fake. Cleopatra was Greek, not black.”
A petition appeared online to prevent the broadcast of the series. According to the initiators, the petition was taken offline by the petition site in question after two days without consultation. At that time it had been signed more than 60,000 times.
Like what Cleopatra?
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. In 51 she succeeded her father Ptolemy XII, a Greco-Macedonian king of Egypt who was descended from a general in the army of Alexander the Great.
Pharaoh Cleopatra spoke many languages besides her native Greek and is said to have been the first in her dynasty to speak Egyptian. She had relations with the Roman Emperors Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; she had children with both men. Cleopatra reigned until her death in 30 BC. Then Egypt became part of the Roman Empire.
“I don’t lose any sleep over it, although I personally would have made a different choice,” says Daniel Soliman. He is an Egyptologist and curator at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. Soliman understands the background of the commotion. “Much of the fuss comes from Egypt and the Egyptian diaspora. Antiquity is important for their identity and pride. I had chosen an actress with an Egyptian background. That can also be someone with a dark skin color.”
There is a lack of clarity about Cleopatra’s origins. Her father was Greek-Macedonian, but not much is known about her mother. “We don’t know exactly who the mother is,” says Daniëlle Slootjes, professor of ancient history at the University of Amsterdam.
Cleopatra was played by a white actress several times in Hollywood productions. For example, Claudette Colbert, Monica Bellucci and Elizabeth Taylor played the role of the Queen, which caused less controversy. With Taylor there were counter-voices from Egypt, because she was Jewish.
I was captivated, but felt that the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?
Director Tina Gharavi on an ‘old’ Cleopatra rendition by Elizabeth Taylor
Tina Gharavi, the director of the new Netflix series, described in Variety magazine what Taylor’s role evoked in her. “I was enthralled, but felt the image wasn’t right. Was her skin really that white? People have gotten it incredibly wrong before.” The director therefore chose a black queen together with producer Jada Pinkett Smith.
Whether we can call Cleopatra’s Greco-Macedonian father a white man is debatable, according to Soliman. “We know his ethnicity, but not his physical features,” he says. He points out that there are hardly any sources about Cleopatra’s actual appearance.
“We are used to seeing antiquity as the heritage of white people,” says Rosemarie Buikema, professor of art, culture and diversity at Utrecht University. “Just like Christianity, where it is not at all certain which skin color Jesus had. Playing with the color of Cleopatra is therefore well defensible from a historical point of view.”
Prince or princess
Buikema understands the political choice for a black Cleopatra. “Black children can also be the descendants of kings and queens, and not just the descendants of enslaved people. It matters that they can also dream: I am a little prince or a little princess. It is extremely important to be part of the dominant history.”
Slootjes: “The world of antiquity is one of three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. People were enormously connected through trade and cultural exchanges.” In the 19th century, however, according to the historian, there was a tendency to place antiquity in a Eurocentric perspective. That Cleopatra was depicted in popular culture mainly as a white, European woman is therefore little surprise to Slootjes.
Long black wig
But Cleopatra was portrayed in different ways in ancient times, says Egyptologist Soliman. “On the one hand in a typical Egyptian way: as a slender woman with a long black wig and Egyptian clothing. On the other hand she is depicted very Greek. On old coins she has broad braids, a large nose and chin.” And in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, the queen was also dark-skinned.
“If, according to sources, there are different images of Cleopatra, a black queen is historically okay and certainly politically okay,” says Buikema. “The resistance to this really only exposes the problematic one-sidedness of the representation of our history.”