When Netflix announced their docu-series on Queen Cleopatra VII, excitement was high among the cast and crew.
As the series’ star, Adele James, put it “I don’t know if there are words powerful enough to express what I hope this will mean for young people all over the world who look like me (and who don’t!) who will now get to grow up seeing the greatest leader of all time (of the greatest ancient civilisation, no less!!) being portrayed by a black-mixed woman on one of the biggest streaming services in the world!!!!!”
However, it wasn’t long before problems arose, with many voicing their opinion that Netflix was ‘blackwashing’ the show, and Egyptian experts weighing in to the mounting criticism.
And now, those same people are taking steps towards making sure the show never gets the chance to hit screens in Egypt. The trailer alone, with over 2 million views on YouTube, does not allow comments in the wake of its backlash.
The series, titled African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, marks 27-year-old biracial actress Adele James’ Netflix debut. It is also narrated and executive produced by Jade Pinkett Smith.
And while Queen Cleopatra’s race has long been a subject of dispute, as Pinkett Smith confessed to Tudum, the decision to cast James was intended as “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.
“During the time of her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial. Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known. Some speculate she was a native Egyptian woman while others say she was Greek.”
“I really wanted to represent Black women,” Pinkett Smith added. “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me.”
The portrayal, however, has been dubbed “completely fake” by some experts. Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who believes the late queen was Greek and definitively “not black”, has accused streaming giant Netflix of “trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black”.
As he told the Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, “Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.”
Mahmoud al-Semary, a lawyer who is of the same opinion, went so far as to file a complaint with Egypt’s public prosecutor, demanding that Netflix be blocked in Egypt for their attempts to “promote the Afrocentric thinking … which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”
And he wasn’t the only one to take action, with a petition circling online to “Cancel Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’”. And while a former petition calling for the same thing was removed by Change.org despite its 85,000 signatures, the second attempt has so far gathered over 4,000.
Meanwhile, Egyptologist Sally-Ann Ashton – who acted as a consultant for Netflix during the series’ preparation phase – has noted that the belief Cleopatra should be depicted as entirely European is “strange”.
“Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa,” she explained. “If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women, they would’ve been African, and this should be reflected in contemporary representations of Cleopatra.”
And as Adele James put it best – along with some all important advice – to the flood of criticism aimed at her, “if you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”
This article first appeared on Over60.