Image description: A header illustration featuring images of both Queen Charlotte and Queen Cleopatra from the two Netflix series with background painted with various colors. End ID

Illustration by Clara Juong

Why are we still hyping TV shows like Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra”?

Defenders of the show say it challenges all the Monica Belluccis and Angelina Jolies who played Cleopatra — but no one is talking about how Egyptian actors have rarely gotten to play her, whether they are white, Black, or somewhere in between.

Jan 1, 1970

On April 12, the trailer for Queen Cleopatra debuted, to much controversy. This second season of the Jada Pinkett Smith-produced documentary, African Queens, garnered backlash for depicting the titular character as Black. One line, in particular, has been heavily criticized on social media comments.
“I remember my grandmother saying to me I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”
At a first glance, this documentary makes a valid point. From Theda Bara to Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra has often been played in Hollywood by white individuals of Western and Northern European descent — they are far removed from the historical figure’s background. People of Cleopatra’s heritage — at least some of whom were Greek and Egyptian — deserve to be represented, too.
No one knows what she truly looked like. But what this show gets wrong is its execution, wherein it contributes to the media delegitimizing Egyptians’ claim to their ancient history.
The show producers claimed that the show was not meant to be focused on her ethnicity, but in actuality, her heritage and appearance have been at the forefront of much of the show’s promotional material. The YouTube trailer description, for instance, states that “Cleopatra’s heritage has been the subject of much academic debate, which has often been ignored by Hollywood. Now our series re-assesses this fascinating part of her story.”
Queen Cleopatra, a Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, is confirmed to have Macedonian heritage. Since her family had ruled Egypt for a few centuries, albeit marrying within the family quite a bit, she is theorized to have some level of Egyptian ancestry — but what defines this “Egyptianness” has been debated by some.
Egypt is racially diverse, and has been for millennia. As such, the problem is not about who plays Cleopatra. On the contrary, the series’ Persian director, Tina Gharavi, wrote a thought provoking piece on how she did not know what Cleopatra looked like, but wanted to challenge people's tendency to only imagine her as white. She wanted to introduce the idea that she might have looked different — particularly to Egyptians, some of whom she felt fell under that frame of thinking.
Colorism does exist in the MENA region. It is a real, very significant issue, one that needs more active discourse, and even though the show intended to engage in it, “Queen Cleopatra” was made with a Western audience in mind on an English language platform, and does not target Egyptians. It is not a show that has Egyptians questioning their biases of what an Egyptian looks like at the forefront of its intentionality and, because of that, it misses its mark. It challenges the racialization of Cleopatra as a white woman by framing the discussion around Western racial biases in cinema. Defenders of the show keep bringing up how it challenges all the Monica Belluccis and Angelina Jolies who played Cleopatra — but no one is talking about how Egyptian actors have rarely gotten to play her, whether they are white, Black, or somewhere in between.
Recently, “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” came out on Netflix as well. Like Queen Cleopatra, the titular figure was cast as a Black woman. Queen Charlotte was a British queen, who some have theorized as having African ancestry. This is also a topic of historical debate, but this show did not garner the same amount of controversy, because there is a difference. Bridgerton is not a documentary, it is historical fiction that highlights the ambiguity of her race. It is a show that, in the first episode, states: “It is not a history lesson. It is fiction inspired by fact.” That clarifies it is imagining what it might have been like if Queen Charlotte was Black, without making a historical stand one way or another. This is not what Queen Cleopatra does, and for that, it is dangerous.
When a film is framed as a documentary, it claims to be factual. People watch documentaries to be informed, and not entertained. So when someone, perhaps most people, lack context about discourses on Queen Cleopatra’s heritage, and see a documentary that, in its trailers, appears to infer that some Egyptians today are not Egyptians of the past, that they are different figures entirely, this can feed into misinformation. Egyptians, the Amazigh, North Africans are generally absent in Western consciousness as a distinct, native identity between Western racial schema. While I do agree it can be regarded as hypocritical to feel so outraged at her casting as a Black woman when she has been white actresses time and time again — that does not absolve what the show remains silent on. This is an issue about how it is being framed, and how heritage is discussed. Not who is being cast.
Egyptians today have felt sidelined in discussions about their history — a number of social media posts have referred to them as Arab colonizers, of not having a claim to Ancient Egypt. When one takes into account that European colonialism has appropriated their history for centuries by whitening it, it seems contradictory to decenter modern Egyptians on discourses about their identity once again. Now, many still struggle to claim their history, to gain legitimacy as “true” Egyptians. The nation is diverse, yes. But all Egyptians, no matter their appearance, have equal claim to their ancient history. And if one wants to focus on accurate representation in the casting of Cleopatra, why not cast someone Egyptian? In keeping the director’s intention, someone who is Black and Egyptian?
At the end of the day, Adele James, the actress playing Cleopatra, is not obligated to be Egyptian to play the role because as mentioned prior, many, many non-Egyptians have in Western media. This show does not deserve to carry a heavier burden over who it does not represent. But, in not representing Egyptians, what does the series accomplish that other depictions of Cleopatra have not? Jada Pickett Smith said, herself, this show was aimed to represent Black queens. The show sidelines other queens that have not been adequately depicted in the media for a figure whose racial identity will never be known. Why Cleopatra? Why, when there are so many underrepresented historical figures untold on international platforms like Netflix?
Ultimately, I dwell on the controversy surrounding the show’s promotional material. As it does not come out until May 11, I can not claim to know what the show is truly like. And I sincerely hope that it does succeed as a documentary, but for it to do that, it needs to be transparent about what it intends to say about Queen Cleopatra.
Sidra Dahhan is Managing Editor. Email her at
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