CHICAGO: A controversial Netflix film that casts an African American actress as the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra has pulled the curtain off of a simmering Hollywood drama on the blurred line that often exists between fact and fiction in movies.
The docu-drama “Queen Cleopatra,” produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith, has drawn the ire of Egyptians and Arabs who are insistent that their history be accurately reflected in Hollywood films, while riling many black people who say they have been victims of generations of racism on a global level.
During interviews on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show” on Wednesday, renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and African American radio talk show host Perri Small debated whether fact or fiction is driving the Cleopatra story, and the impact the production has on the public perceptions of Arabs, Egyptians and black people.
Hawass, who this month launches a 26-city US tour where he will reveal more discoveries from Egyptian history, said the casting of an African American actress, Adele James, to play Cleopatra is intended to reinforce assertions that black Africans are the origins of Egyptian history.
“If you do a documentary, you have to be strict with history and you have to consult an Egyptologist. If the film is drama, you have to write it as fiction and you can do what you want. And therefore, if you look at history, we have statues of Cleopatra,” Hawass said, arguing that there is significant evidence in unearthed ancient relics that point to Cleopatra’s white lineage.
“Cleopatra was a Macedonian. All the queens and princesses of Macedonia were not black. Also, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII,” he said.
“I really think that the reason this film is shown now (is) because some people want to say that the origins of Ancient Egypt were black.”
Hawass argued that if Pinkett-Smith wanted to cast Cleopatra with a black actress, she should redefine the project as fiction rather than as a documentary.
“I don’t think it is fair to make a documentary to show that Cleopatra was black. This is changing history,” Hawass said.
Small, the morning host on America’s oldest black radio station, WVON AM 1690 in Chicago, said the Cleopatra controversy has been a major topic of discussion on her radio show and among America’s black community.
“I would not even begin to argue with a scholar that Cleopatra VII was (of) Macedonian, Greek descent. I wouldn’t even argue that. I am not a scholar in that. But Egyptians are arguing that the documentary requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts, and I get that. Can we please do that? Does anybody have Cleopatra’s DNA?” Perri said.
“It seems to us that it is more of an anti-blackness. I do respect the (Egyptian) culture. They say it is not racism. They say it is not ethnicity. But let’s face it, there is an anti-blackness globally. It is an anti-blackness, and I don’t think that people of your community and other communities even understand that.
Small explained that many African Americans look at the Cleopatra controversy through the eyes of their experiences, which has been dominated by racism and discrimination and cultural denial over many centuries.
But Hawass insisted that, despite feelings that viewers may have for or against the casting of a black actress to represent Cleopatra, the debate is not about race or racism but is rather an issue of accuracy.
“This has nothing to do with race at all. I said if this documentary showed Cleopatra as blonde, I would object. Cleopatra was not black. Cleopatra was not blonde,” Hawass said.
“If she (Pinkett-Smith) writes at the beginning of the film, that this movie is fiction and has nothing to do with history, I would accept that.”
Hawass said that Pinkett-Smith’s intent may have been to create a controversy all along in order to generate attention for the film.
“It is actually the purpose, in my opinion, of this movie … to show that the black (Africans) were the origins of ancient Egypt, but this is not true,” Hawass insisted.
“The Ray Hanania Radio Show” is broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network every Wednesday at 5 p.m. in Detroit, Michigan on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington, D.C. on WDMV AM 700.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.