DUBAI: A four-part documentary executive produced by US actress Jada Pinkett Smith for Netflix is coming under fire on social media over its portrayal of Cleopatra by a Black actress.
Detractors on TikTok and Twitter are decrying the upcoming documentary, set to premiere on May 10, which features actress Adele James in the role of the queen of Egypt.
In the trailer for the documentary, one commentator says: “My grandmother said, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’”
Cleopatra VII Philopathor was the ruler of Egypt prior to Roman rule. According to historians, she is a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general, who ruled over Egypt when it was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. As noted by historian Sheila L. Ager, director of Hellenistic Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in a 2005 study, the Ptolemies practiced interbreeding and sibling marriage. Historians also widely agree that Cleopatra spoke Koine Greek as her mother tongue and was the only Ptolemaic leader to learn and regularly use the Egyptian language.
Cleopatra’s Greek Macedonian background forms the crux of the argument many on social media have been making, with a number of Egyptian, African American and international critics slamming the decision to portray the ruler as of Sub-Saharan origin. “This is not the Black representation I wanted or needed,” TikTok user Jianna Ewuresi said in a video, adding: “They cast a Black woman to play Queen Cleopatra, the problem is she wasn’t Black.”
@marshmallowmoney this is NOT the black representation i wanted or needed @netflix #cleopatra #cleopatranetflix #jadapinkettsmith #willsmith #blacktok #representationmatters #colorism #blacklivesmatter #blm #blackvoices #blackcharacters #tv #showtok ♬ original sound - Jianna Ewuresi
Other users have slammed the documentary as problematic due to the Macedonians’ role as invaders of Egypt, saying that portraying a Ptolemaic leader as Black is essentially “like if you made a show about India being colonized and King George was depicted as an Indian,” according to TikTok user Aslan Pahari.
Many on social media offered up other historical figures who could have been played by the actress, including Ahhotep, Hatshepsut and Nefertiti.
@manalmet Again Ahhotep, Hatshepsut &Nefertiti were right there #egypt #egyptian #jadapinkettsmith #cleopatra #netflix #africanqueens #northafrica #africa #history #ancientegypt #egytiktok #greece #ancientgreece #fyp #greenscreen ♬ original sound - Manal منال
“Everytime something like this happens, we are taking away the opportunity to tell a real Black story from real Black history,” TikTok user Dennis stated.
Duane W. Roller, an American archaeologist, author, and professor emeritus of classics, Greek and Latin at the Ohio State University, agreed in a previous post on the subject, published in 2010, saying: “It has been suggested – although generally not by credible scholarly sources – that Cleopatra was racially black African. To be blunt, there is absolutely no evidence for this, yet it is one of those issues that seems to take on a life of its own despite all indication to the contrary.”
However, the team behind the Netflix documentary is moving forward with the series.
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens,” Smith, who is married to Oscar-winner Will Smith, shared in a statement. “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!”
“Cleopatra is a queen who many know about, but not in her truth,” Smith added. “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.”