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Was Cleopatra Black? Does It Matter?

Was Cleopatra Black? Does It Matter?
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Netflix's upcoming Queen Cleopatra has been the subject of online backlash and even Egyptian lawsuits — all because it depicts the historic figure as Black.

Netflix is being sued by an Egyptian lawyer over its upcoming Queen Cleopatra — which depicts the historic figure as a Black woman.

The complaint was submitted through Egypt's public prosecutor by Mahmoud al-Semary, who is not only pursuing legal action against the company, but demanding that Netflix be shut down in the country. He claimed that the casting was "erasing the Egyptian identity" and that "most of what Netflix platform displays do not conform to Islamic and societal values and principles, especially Egyptian ones," according to the Egypt Independent.

Ever since British actor Adele James was announced as Cleopatra, a debate sparked about the queen's racial identity, and the color of her skin. She had previously been portrayed by actors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Vivian Leigh — both White. Recently, Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot have been in talks to play Cleopatra, both of whom do not identify as White, but are light-skinned.

As her mother is unknown, Cleopatra's heritage is widely contested. Kathryn Bard, professor of archaeology and classical studies at Boston University, told Newsweek that "we don't know what color Cleopatra's skin was and unless her mummy is found (unlikely) and DNA can be analyzed from it, we will never know."

"Her father was a Ptolemy of Macedonian descent, but it's less certain who her mother was. But even a so-called docudrama is bound to fictionalize much of her life — for entertainment's sake," she said.

According to Queen Cleopatra director Tina Gharavi, "Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely."

"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," she explained.

Gharavi addressed the recent backlash in a column via Variety, where she detailed the extensive research that went into the project, as well as the reason why they decided to portray the elusive figure as dark-skinned.

"After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength," she wrote. "What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did."

Gharavi also pointed out the double standard in the recent uproar, citing the HBO series Rome, which Gharavi said "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?" she said. "But portraying her as Black? Well."

The director believes that the outrage highlights the "need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with." Gharavi also wrote that the backlash was missing the purpose of the project, and its importance in society today.

"I would like to draw a direct line from her to the women in Egypt who rose up in the Arab uprisings, and to my Persian sisters who are today rebelling against a brutal regime," she said. "Never before has it been more important to have women leaders: White or Black."

Queen Cleopatra releases on Netflix May 10.

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