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How Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Sparked Allegations Of ‘Blackwashing’ And A Conversation Over Culture, Race and Identity in Modern Egypt

Queen Cleopatra (Image credit- Netflix)

The world recognizes ancient Egypt as a civilization characterized by its openness to other cultures. It was a melting pot of different civilizations and ethnicities, and one of the ancient world’s premier civilizations because of its legendary history, culture, art and ethnic fashion.

The nation also was a crossroads where people from all over the world converged. As a trader or traveler in Egypt, one might have encountered a diversity of people, including Greeks, Romans, Nubians and others.

Egypt
A granite Egyptian bust of Cleopatra from the Royal Ontario Museum, mid-1st century B.C. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over Egypt’s long history, this cultural amalgamation resulted in a vibrant society that embraced diversity and nurtured a sense of shared heritage during more ancient times.

In the West, Egypt is often used as a flagship banner, a culture foundational to western civilization, although the nation sits on the African continent.

Over Egypt’s long history, this cultural amalgamation resulted in a vibrant society that embraced diversity and nurtured a sense of shared heritage during more ancient times.

THE ENIGMATIC RULER

Amid this rich tapestry of Egyptian culture, the illustrious Queen Cleopatra for centuries has captivated the imaginations of people worldwide. Her racial identity has also been the subject of speculation, debate and intrigue, often intertwining history and mythology into the enigmatic stories of her life.

As a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra was born in Alexandria and traced her lineage back to Macedonian Greeks. Scholars largely agree that Cleopatra went to great lengths to align herself with Egyptian customs, religious beliefs and attire, gaining proficiency in the language and portraying herself as the living embodiment of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

An Egyptian statue of either Arsinoe II or Cleopatra as an Egyptian goddess
in black basalt from the second half of the 1st century B.C. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to historians, her Ptolemaic ancestry may have included intermarriage with Egyptian and Nubian individuals, and possibly those of Persian or Syrian ancestry.

According to historians, her Ptolemaic ancestry may have included intermarriage with Egyptian and Nubian individuals, and possibly those of Persian or Syrian ancestry.

This intricate mixture of influences has fueled discussions in modern times about Cleopatra’s racial identity, with some suggesting she may have had African or Black ancestry.

During her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial, but Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known.

NETFLIX’S DOCUSERIES: GROUNDBREAKING AND CONTROVERSIAL

In a groundbreaking Netflix docuseries produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, controversy over its depiction of Queen Cleopatra VII as a Black African stirred a hotbed of discussions and interpretations about the biological racial identities of ancient Egypt.

According to Zachary Morgan of Western Carolina University, “[I]nterpretations of the biological racial identity of Ancient Egypt have played a critical role in forming various ethnic, cultural, and political groups’ perception of their heritage and identity. This has led to … creating uses and abuses of history that have been directly linked to the political and cultural concerns of the time.”

The Netflix docuseries takes its viewers on a fascinating journey through the life and reign of Cleopatra, from her childhood in Egypt to her death.

The docuseries is notable for its representation of Cleopatra’s racial identity because it reimagines the iconic figure as a woman with partially Nubian heritage. (Watch Netflix’s trailer for “Queen Cleopatra.”)

This docuseries explores the rich tapestry of ancient Egypt and the diversity that shaped its last pharaoh, questions the long-held Eurocentric lens that dominated interpretations about the traditional portrayal of Cleopatra as solely Greek-Macedonian and fair-skinned with a facial features being more aligned with whiteness (i.e., casting Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra), and seeks to shed light on the possibility of Cleopatra having African or black ancestry.

Elizabeth Taylor as Queen Cleopatra. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Director Tina Gharavi’s decision to cast mixed-raced British actor Adele James as Cleopatra was a creative choice. As Gharavi says in the Daily Mail, she wanted to explore depicting a strong Cleopatra with African roots.

“Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that,” she says. “I am OK with this.”

EGYPTIANS ACCUSE NETFLIX OF ‘BLACKWASHING’

While some viewers may appreciate the Netflix series for its emphasis on Egypt’s diversity and the exploration of alternative narratives, the Queen Cleopatra docuseries has resulted in a fast and furious fallout.

Scholars, lawyers, politicians and Egyptians in general have alleged that the portrayal of a Black Cleopatra is an appropriation and misrepresentation of their culture.

Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud El-Semiry filed a formal complaint with Egypt’s public prosecutor about Netflix’s docuseries.

Scholars, lawyers, politicians and Egyptians in general have alleged that the portrayal of a Black Cleopatra is an appropriation and misrepresentation of their culture.

CBS News reports the lawyer as saying: “We have known for thousands of years that Cleopatra is of Greek origin and was born in Egypt. This is a fact. Our main objection is the falsification of these facts. It is not about being Black or White or even Yellow. Let’s say they wanted to portray Cleopatra as a man; we would also object to that.”

Egypt
The Berlin Cleopatra, a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century B.C. (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 B.C.) and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Critics further accuse Netflix of trying to erase the Egyptian identity by “blackwashing” to promote Afrocentric thinking.

In an opinion piece for Vogue, Sagan Mohammed writes: “Her casting was met with heavy-handed backlash almost immediately after it was announced — with certain scholars and both the Greek and Arab press enraged about what they described as the ‘blackwashing’ of Egyptian history.”

Mohammed further posits that questions of historical inaccuracy and cultural appropriation — peppered with a predictable dose of racism — have made international headlines since the first trailer for the show dropped, introducing Cleopatra as a mixed-heritage Black woman.”

Mohammed asserts that, while concerns about accuracy and erasure are valid, the use of the phrase “Afrocentric thinking” is, in effect, a form of racism.

Egyptian historian Islam Issa, guest expert on the Netflix docuseries, has studied the legacy and history of Cleopatra. He writes in an opinion column for Al Jazeera that the queen’s Macedonian Greek background, that her ancestors intermarried, and that nearly all of them would have been fair-skinned, transcend dispute.

However, Issa further writes that today’s racial terms are anachronistic, since Egyptians of Alexandria recorded nothing that would be normative for race, given that genetic makeup varied across the region from Europeans to Nubians.

However, to claim that “there are no dark-skinned Egyptians or to claim that “Egyptian civilisations were fundamentally sub-Saharan African are essentially both forms of erasure,” he adds.

Egypt
An Egyptian portrait of a Ptolemaic queen, possibly Cleopatra, c. 51–30 BC,
located in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

RESHAPING HISTORICAL NARRATIVES: CONCLUSION

The docuseries and its interpretation of Cleopatra’s racial identity have resurfaced ongoing conversations and debates within Egyptian society, reflecting the dynamic nature of historical interpretation and the diverse perspectives that shape cultural discussions.

The question of the race of ancient Egyptians was raised historically as a product of 18th and 19th century concepts linked to models of racial constructs and hierarchy. 

And contemporary views on race can’t shape scholarship either, says Professor Maarten Larmuseau, a genetic genealogist at the Laboratory of Human Genetic Genealogy in the Department of Human Genetics at KU Leuven in Belgium.

“In the science of human genetics,” he tells Culturs Magazine, “most anthropologists and genetic researchers have come to reject the notion of race as a construct; it holds no validity in the study of human biology.”

No matter what side of the fence you see yourself, one thing is for sure: the story of Cleopatra encompasses an intricate web of culture, race, and identity in ancient and modern-day Egypt.

In the science of human genetics, most anthropologists and genetic researchers have come to reject the notion of race as a construct; it holds no validity in the study of human biology.

Cleopatra’s life offers an invitation to reflect and pursue deeper conversations and understanding of the vibrant mosaic that was ancient Egypt and appreciate the richness that comes from embracing perceptions of culture, race, identity, hidden diversity and collective heritage, as exemplified by the Culturs vision and mission.

(Featured Image credit: Netflix)

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