Debate Rages Over Netflix's Black Cleopatra

Some Egyptian experts are fuming over what they say is a false portrayal
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 29, 2023 3:30 PM CDT

Jada Pinkett Smith, executive producer and narrator of the new Netflix drama-documentary series Queen Cleopatra, says it was "really important for me" to highlight "stories about Black queens," per the Guardian. The series premiering May 10 certainly portrays the last pharoah of Egypt as Black, with mixed-race actor Adele James in the title role, per the Los Angeles Times. And it is exactly that that has some Egyptian experts fuming. Mostafa Waziri, head of Egypt's Supreme Antiquities Council, says the depiction is "a falsification of Egyptian history," per the Guardian, while Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, the former minister of state for antiquities affairs, says "Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black," per the Times. In other words, Netflix's depiction is "completely fake."

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 69 BCE, Cleopatra descended from a Macedonian Greek royal dynasty on the side of her father, Ptolemy XII. Little is known about the ethnic origin of her mother. As WION notes, Egypt was "a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities" at the time. According to series director Tina Gharavi, Cleopatra's Macedonian Greek family "had been in Egypt for 300 years" by the time of her birth, "making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely." Indeed, historians believe "it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did," she writes at Variety.

As Time points out, "many experts say there is no evidence" of Cleopatra having Black ancestors. "She could have been Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman all at the same time," Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of classics at Denison University, tells the outlet. Cleopatra scholar Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, who worked on the project, says the pharoah's ethnicity "is not the focus," though "we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra's possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt," per the Guardian. As Gharavi sees it, "I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that." (More Cleopatra stories.)

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