“Queen Cleopatra,” a Netflix series starring British actress Adele James that premieres next week, has put some people’s noses badly out of joint.
They are upset because James is Black and Cleopatra wasn’t. The celebrated Egyptian queen was a direct descendant of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemy I, and her physical features were Mediterranean, not African. But the Netflix series is part of a project called “African Queens” and its executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith, says her goal is to “represent Black women.”
In a statement this week, the government of Egypt lambasted the four-part series as a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy.” Egyptian attorney Mahmoud al-Semary, calling the docudrama a “crime” and a “forgery,” filed a lawsuit to have the public prosecutor shut down Netflix operations in Egypt.
Critics closer to home are also melting down over the so-called blackwashing of Cleopatra’s story.
On his “Culture Warrior” blog, conservative essayist Mark Tapson fumed that casting James to play Cleopatra was akin to hiring “blonde actress Charlize Theron” to play Rosa Parks, or giving “white actor Matt Damon” the lead in a film about the African warrior-king Shaka Zulu. “Imagine the apoplexy from the hypersensitive culture scolds, the cultural appropriation police, of the Left,” Tapson wrote. “And they would be absolutely correct.”
Tucker Carlson got into the act too. On what turned out to be his last program for Fox News, he accused Netflix of “tearing down the past” through its attempt to “rewrite the history of Egypt” and “erase Egyptian identity.”
This is not the first time a controversy has erupted over the choice of an actress to play Cleopatra. In 2020, the outrage machine was ginned up because a white actress, Gal Gadot, landed the role. That was “a backwards step for Hollywood representation,” thundered The Guardian — another instance of the film industry’s “frustrating habit of whitewashing history.”
So it’s “whitewashing” when the actress portraying Cleopatra is white and “blackwashing” when the actress is Black. What option is left? Casting an Arab actress would doubtless be excoriated as “Arabwashing,” since Arabs didn’t arrive in Egypt until six centuries after the queen’s death. Maybe the only way to avoid the identity commissars is to not make dramas about Cleopatra at all.
It has become almost routine these days to denounce films and stage productions for casting actors to depict characters who don’t match their own demographic characteristics. The able-bodied Bryan Cranston was pilloried for taking on the role of someone with quadriplegic injuries in “The Upside.” Scarlett Johansson was attacked so ferociously when she agreed to make a film about a transgender brothel owner that she withdrew from the project. Angelina Jolie was assailed for playing Mariane Pearl, the biracial widow of reporter Daniel Pearl, in 2007′s “A Mighty Heart.” The Cleopatra uproar is just more of the same.
Tom Hanks, whose 1993 performance in “Philadelphia” as a gay lawyer with AIDS earned an Academy Award for best actor, said last year that a heterosexual actor would never get that role today, “and rightly so.” I suspect Hanks doesn’t actually believe that and said it only to avoid an ideological furor. Nothing could be more antithetical to great drama than the demand that actors never play characters who don’t share their own race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or body type.
The whole point of acting is to pretend — to embody a role and bring it meaningfully to life. Whether an actor is right or wrong for a role isn’t a matter of literal physical authenticity, but of the authenticity that comes from rising above mere demographic details — from the ability to render a performance so compelling that audiences relate only to the character, not the artist portraying that character.
There is no reason in the world not to cast a Black actress as Cleopatra — or a white, Arab, or Asian actress, for that matter. The role demands skill, not skin color. The Netflix series is a work of art, not scholarship. Those producing it are no more bound by the strict demands of historical accuracy than Lin-Manuel Miranda was when he cast Black and Latino actors to portray America’s founders in “Hamilton.” Or Cecil B. DeMille when he picked Charlton Heston to play Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” Or Richard Attenborough when he turned to Ben Kingsley to bring the Mahatma to life in “Gandhi.”
As Robert Brustein, the venerable founder of the American Repertory Theater, once observed, the highest purpose of drama is to explore “the workings of the human soul, which has no color.” Adele James is Black and Cleopatra wasn’t? Quite true. Quite irrelevant.