Egypt hits back at Netflix's Cleopatra and say she 'had white skin'

Egyptian government says Cleopatra was NOT black: Officials slap down Netflix for ‘blackwashing’ pharaoh as they say she ‘had white skin and Hellenistic features’ – and docudrama is ‘a falsification of Egyptian history’

  • The new docuseries, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, stars black British actress Adele James as the Egyptian ruler
  • The trailer has drawn a furious backlash for featuring claims from historians who assert that Cleopatra was black and had ‘curly hair’
  • Egyptian Authorities have now slapped down Netflix and ascertain the ruler ‘had white skin’

Egypt has slammed Netflix for presenting Cleopatra as black in its new docudrama – accusing the streaming giant of ‘falsifying Egyptian history’.

Netflix had been accused of ‘blackwashing’ history by casting the black actress as the pharaoh in the new series about the Macedonian-Greek ruler.

African Queens: Queen Cleopatra stars 37-year-old English actress Adele James as the titular character.

Producer Jada Pinkett Smith said she wanted to tell the story because ‘we don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens.’

The trailer, released two weeks ago, claims that Cleopatra was black with ‘curly hair’, which has infuriated Egyptians who slapped down the claim.

Adele James (left) in African Queens: Queen Cleopatra

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities shared images of the bust of the ruler (left) to show she did have a ‘light complexion’

One historian claims in the preview: ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’

But now the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Egypt has hit back in a lengthy statement with evidence they claim proves Cleopatra had a ‘light complexion’ with ‘Hellenistic characteristics’.

Dr Mustafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Archeology, said the appearance of Cleopatra in the upcoming series was ‘a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical misconception’

Dr Waziri said: ‘The film is classified as a documentary and not a drama, the order that the owners of its industry have to investigate accuracy and refer to historical and scientific facts in order to ensure that the history and civilizations of peoples is not falsified.

He added archaeologists and anthropologists should have been referred to when making the series.

Alongside their lengthy statement, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities attached images of artefacts and coins with Cleopatra’s depiction on them.

They said they did this to show off her ‘hellenic (greek) features, in terms of light complexion, drawn nose and fluffy lips.’

In the show, which is due to air on May 10, Cleopatra is depicted as black, despite historical records showing she was of Macedonian Greek heritage

Pictured: Adele James as the Egyptian Ruler (centre) in the new Netflix series due to release next month

A painting from a villa at Herculaneum in modern day Campania portraying a red-haired woman whose facial features, royal diadem and hairstyle adorned with fine pearl-studded hairpins suggest a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra (left) and an engraving by J Chapman made in 1804, showing a romanticized 19th century conception of Queen Cleopatra (right)

A picture shared by the Egyptian government of artwork of Cleopatra

Dr Waziri said the state of rejection that the film witnessed before its screening comes from defending the history of Queen Cleopatra, which is an important and authentic part of ancient Egyptian history.

Dr. Nasser Mekkawy, Head of the Egyptian Department of Archeology at Cairo University added that Cleopatra’s appearance would have been light-skinned due to her Macedonian origins

‘Blackwashing’ in other films and shows 

Anne Boleyn (2021)

Black English actress Jodie Turner-Smith played the Queen of England in a British TV series. Anne Boleyn was white and the second wife of King Henry VIII.

Saint Joan (2020)

Black New Yorker Condola Rashad played the French heroine Joan of Arc in a stage production of the tale set in the 15th century. In the play, Rashad is a gender non-confirming Joan.

Troy: Fall of a City (2018)

In the TV drama, Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, is played by black English actor David Gyasi.

The Hollow Crown (2012 – 2016)

Sophie Okonedo, a Nigerian-British actress, played Queen Margaret of Anjou in the Shakespearean TV adaptation. Margaret, of French descent, was Queen of England and married to King Henry VI from 1445 to 1461.

Once Upon a Time (2011 – 2018)

The ABC series about fairytales features a black actor Sinqua Walls as Sir Lancelot. 

Lancelot is a British character who features as one of King Arthur’s close companions and one of the greatest Knights of the Round Table. Arthur was a legendary king of Britain and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition. 

Robin Hood (2006 – 2009)

The BBC series featured black English actor David Harewood as Friar Tuck.

Friar Tuck is one of the legendary Merry Men, the band of heroic outlaws in the folklore of Robin Hood which was set in England’s Sherwood Forest in the 15th century.

He said that Cleopatra descended from an ancient Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years.

The Ministry also said that anthropology studies and DNA studies conducted on mummies and bones confirmed that Egyptians do not bear the features of South-Saharan Africans.

Egyptians reacted with horror to the denial of records which show Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek.

An Egyptian lawyer filed a case with the country’s public prosecutor demanding Netflix be shutdown.

Cairo’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass condemned the documentary as ‘completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.’

Hawass said the only rulers of Egypt known to have been black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC).

‘Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black,’ he added and called on his countrymen to take a stand against the streaming giant.

Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the public prosecutor demanding that he take ‘the necessary legal measures’ to block access to Netflix.

He alleged the show featured content that violated Egypt’s media laws and accused Netflix of trying to ‘promote the Afrocentric thinking … which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.’

Egyptian actress and singer Somaya Elkhashab tweeted: ‘Identifying Queen Cleopatra as black for fulfilling modern African American fantasies is pure theft of egyptian history and yet an attempt to rewrite history’s greats. 

Cleopatra was famously played by white English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic from 1963.

Earlier this week, Queen Cleopatra director Tina Gharavi responded to the claims of ‘blackwashing’ by penning an op-ed for Variety amid the pushback after the debut of the trailer.

In her Variety piece, Gharavi pointed to the late Taylor playing the role in the 1963 film Cleopatra, and pointing out the cultural appropriation she picked up on as a child.

 ‘I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra,’ she wrote. ‘ I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?

‘With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?’

Gharavi said that she was born in Iran and is Persian, noting that ‘Cleopatra’s heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians.’

The director laid out the facts about the heritage of the historical figure in detail, which she said helped her narrow the field for casting purposes.

Queen Cleopatra director Tina Gharavi, 50, responded to claims of ‘blackwashing’ in an op-ed in Variety. Pictured in 2013 in London 

‘The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family – the Ptolemaic lineage – intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years,’ she said.

‘Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.

 ‘After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.’

Gharavi said that she came to the conclusion that it would amount to ‘a political act … to see Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress.’

The trailer for the series, due to launch May 10, notes that Cleopatra belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty but then goes on to dispute her heritage.

Netflix had to turn comments off on the official trailer, after it was met with controversy. 

Elizabeth Taylor as the ruler in the 1963 film ‘Cleopatra’ 

Adele James on horseback in the new Cleopatra Netflix series

 The four-part Cleopatra series will explore the legacy, intellect and life of Cleopatra VII, the Greek Queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC.

‘It’s possible she was an Egyptian’ says one expert, while another adds: ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.”

The official synopsis reads: ‘From Executive Producer Jada Pinkett Smith comes a new documentary series exploring the lives of prominent and iconic African Queens.

‘This season will feature Cleopatra, the world’s most famous, powerful, and misunderstood woman — a daring queen whose beauty and romances came to overshadow her real asset: her intellect.

‘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.’

Cleopatra was the companion of Alexander The Great, renowned for her marriages and affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar.

Her first language was Greek although she was the only Ptolemaic ruler to use the Egyptian language.

  • Queen Cleopatra will be available to stream on Netflix from May 10

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