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Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra Receives Backlash Over Blackwashing

April 14, 2023
Photo credit: Netflix

A recent Netflix documentary called Queen Cleopatra has drawn criticism for  “blackwashing” one of Egypt’s most famous historical figures, Cleopatra.

The trailer for the documentary makes a clear reference to Cleopatra’s skin colour, where one commentator explicitly says, “I don’t care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was black.”

Cleopatra VII Philopathor was the last active ruler of Egypt prior to Roman rule. She is widely known as a Ptolemaic ruler, as a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general, who ruled over Egypt when it was part of Alexander the Great’s empire.

Cleopatra’s well-attested Greek Macedonian background lies at the heart of the controversy which claims ancestry elsewhere.

A petition has been widely circulating online, by two Egyptians; it criticizes Afrocentrism, calls for a cancellation of the documentary’s release, and to “save Egyptian history.”

“This is in no way against black people, and is simply a wake up call to preserve the history and the integrity of the Egyptians and the Greeks,” the petition stated.

One Twitter user who commented on the controversy saying, “Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek and the Greeks weren’t black. Portraying her as black would be historically incorrect. A mere suggestion—if you want diversity to be a part of your agenda: make series about Black historical figure(s) like Queen of Sheba.”

Multiple media outlets and commentators from Greece have also criticized the documentary for historical inaccuracy. “Cleopatra was NOT Black, she was the GREEK Queen of Egypt. Even worse, the CEO of Netflix is “Greek”-American Ted Sarandos. He’s allowing a blackwashing of Greek history,” another user said on Twitter.

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has not release an official comment yet.

Queen Cleopatra, an episode which is narrated and produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, examines the queen’s legacy and reveals the details of her reign. Its aim is to highlight the queen’s strength, intelligence, and fiery femininity.

The documentary falls under the African Queens docu series produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, which aims to spotlight the life and reign of women leaders from Africa.

“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,” Smith said.

“Cleopatra is a queen who many know about, but not in her truth. She’s been displayed as overtly sexual, excessive, and corrupt, yet she was a strategist, an intellect, a commanding force of nature, who fought to protect her kingdom… and her heritage is highly debated. This season will dive deeper into her history and re-assesses this fascinating part of her story.”

Why is there so much controversy?

Cleopatra’s physical appearance and beauty has long been at the forefront of her legacy, and her physical appearance was often mentioned by artists and writers like Shakespeare, who described her beauty in his poetry. Ancient artwork depicted her as plain.

Cleopatra was primarily of Ptolemaic Greek descent, with some Persian and Sogdian Iranian ancestry, according to scholars. This is based on the fact that her Seleucid family, which reigned over much of West Asia, intermarried with the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian Greek family.

The identity of Cleopatra’s unknown mother is the root of the controversy, as American archeologist and Egyptologist Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University told Newsweek that the queen’s mother “has been suggested to have been from the family of the priests of Memphis. If this were the case, then Cleopatra could have been at least 50 percent Egyptian in origin.”

Furthermore, Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak the Egyptian language, which, according to Roller, could indicate “close association with an Egyptian speaker, perhaps her mother.”

Nevertheless, the debate around Cleopatra’s physical appearance overshadows her legacy as a ruler, and also promotes the fallacy that race is shaped purely by physical attributes and is only skin-deep.

Few historical artifacts, including coins and a bust, depict her as far from her rendition in the Netflix series.

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