Netflix is telling its subscribers that Cleopatra was black, but both Cleopatra and I come from Greek stock, so if she was black, I must be too. This is just the break I have been waiting for after seeing my legal ethics training business torn to pieces by the stupid Wuhan virus lockdown, and income reduced to trickle that cannot be restored to its previous whoosh! Now that I can market my services as one of the very few blacks in the field, whole new vistas are open to me. Thanks, Netflix!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry, I’m just giddy.
A new Netflix new docu-series, “African Queens: Queen Cleopatra,” stars black British actress Adele James as the fabled Egyptian ruler. Producer Jada Pinkett Smith (yes, she’s the one her husband slapped Chis Rock over) has said that “she wanted to tell the story because ‘”we don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens.” Somebody should tell Jada that one reason for that is that they prefer to tell the stories of white queens and pretend they are black, as when the very white second wife of King Henry the VIII was cast as being black in 2021 British mini-series. As I pointed out in the linked post, this kind of fantasy revisionism is considered benign—DEI, man!—-while casting a white women to play a black one would be “whitewashing” and racist. Similarly, casting a black actress to play the red-haired, fishy-white Little Mermaid in Disney’s life action version of the animated classic is hunky-dory, but using computer magic to make the black version of whitefish Ariel white again is racist. Clear?
I sure hope not.
I first heard the claim that Cleopatra was black decades ago during one of the mass efforts to show how American history had buried the contributions of blacks. Suddenly Crispus Attucks was the only victim of the Boston Massacre who mattered, and as part of the propaganda, black activists were arguing that Jesus and Cleopatra, among others, were black. However, very few historians think it likely Cleo was black, or ever did, though the series managed to dig up a few. Cleopatra’s importance and powerpower came from her position in Egypt’s long-ruling Ptolemaic dynasty, which came from Macedonia. This means that it is likely that her skin was not dark like that of the native Egyptians (though they aren’t properaly classified as “black” either. Cleopatra biographer Michael Grant argued that she had “not a drop of Egyptian blood in her veins.”
The image of a black Cleopatra got rolling when the 19th-century artist William Wetmore Story sculpted her with black features as his pro-abolition statement. This wasn’t based on historical references or any evidence, just politics and the fact that Egypt is part of Africa. But the idea that one of the most beautiful, intelligent and powerful women in history was black (she wasn’t that beautiful, either) was too good for black self-esteem to discard just because it was completely made-up. One of the historians featured in “Black Queens” says: “I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.” See? Proof!
Well, at least propaganda. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in an another film, the choice was attacked as politically incorrect and insufficiently supine to the current narrative. The current controversy is just the flip side of that one. An Egyptian lawyer has filed a case with the country’s public prosecutor demanding that Netflix be shutdown. Cairo’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass condemned the documentary’s claims as “completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.” So furious has backlash been that Netflix turned off the comments on the official trailer. A second Change.org petition to cancel the show has amassed over 3,000 signatures; an earlier one had over 62,000 signatures.
Personally, I couldn’t care less how she is portrayed in a movie. In 1968, my parents took me to the Broadway-bound new musical “Her First Roman,” based on Shaw’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Starring as Julius Caesar was Richard Kiley, fresh off his triumph as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” and so-starring as Cleopatra was Leslie Uggams, the African-American singer-actress who later starred as Kizzy in “Roots.” Here is Leslie in the Sixties:
Guess what? Nobody cared. There was no controversy over a black actress playing Cleo; all anyone cared about was whether the show was entertaining. (It was OK, but “Her First Roman” closed on Broadway in two weeks.)
After all, it’s possible that Cleopatra was black, though no contemporary accounts or images support that conclusion. Not all Greeks were white. It’s possible that she was black. Heck, it’s possible that Babe Ruth and Warren G. Harding were black. We only found out that Carol Channing (“Hello Dolly!”) was black after she died.
The only thing that I object to are positive assertions that Cleopatra was black, when there is barely any evidence to support that conclusion. But if it soothes what clearly are deep rooted racial insecurities for African-Americans to believe the queen was black, fine.
Anything to help out.
Pointer: Other Bill
17 thoughts on “If Cleopatra Was Black, Maybe I Am Too!”
I’m part Greek so I’m black too, right? I mean my pasty white skin from my Norwegian great great great grandmother is definitely a drawback, but my grandfather was from Greece, so that’s a closer relation anyway, right?
These rules are getting even more stupid…well for the subject matter, I should say stupider.
COTD…and I’ll be billing you for “monitor-cleaning” expenses.
Oh Noes! You’ve just committed our latest social malady – “digital blackface”!
So. Liz Taylor was black!
No no! That was “whitewashing.” Also fatwashing, as Liz those days probably outweighed the real Cleo by 50 pounds or more. But at least she didn’t wear a fat suit…
I think it was a Joan Rivers line that the end of her years Liz “had her ears pierced and they struck gravy.”
It’s amazing what Joan got away with. She made Don Rickles seem like Mr. Rogers.
Yep. Joan was delightfully filthy.
The present prominent assertion is that all civilization stems from the black people of the African continent. There fore all people can trace their genetics to this pool. If that is so then we should all be getting the benefits that are now given to people of African descent. Thus I will be moving to San Francisco to avail myself of their generous reparation.
It might work!
It’s all Greek to me.
Anthropologists have largely concluded Pharaonic Egyptians were mainly Caucasian, but these days they’re whatever the woke bunch says they are and woe unto any that would dispute these claims. Regarding this incessant recasting of White roles, could it be due to blacks not having very much history of their own? After all, evolution has largely confined blacks to sub Saharan Africa, until the European’s arrived.
Disney being consistent with its Woke dogma is remaking a live action version of The Little Mermaid complete with recasting the mermaid with a black actress. Media analysts have already concluded this movie will end up losing many millions prompting the actress playing the lead to claim she’s a victim of racism. And this is even before the movie has been released.
There are several differences, I think, between this story and the brouhaha over the black Anne Boleyn a couple of years ago.
First is a fundamental difference in the way the casting of a major role was presented. The BBC would have us believe that race doesn’t matter in the casting of the title character in the “Anne Boleyn” mini-series so long as it’s “surprising.” (As you noted, Jack, a block of cheese would also have been surprising in the role.) The forthcoming Netflix series is at least honest that being black (or mixed race and appearing black, in this case) was a prerequisite for an actress being considered for the role of Cleopatra, who almost certainly was, shall we say, significantly lighter-complected.
This is apparent in the nonsensical utterances in the promotional video, in which anonymous voices are treated as authorities. If they had a legitimate historian who supported the cause, that person would be identified as such. That omission is more than a little telling.
The problem is exacerbated by the opening sequence of the trailer in which the Cleopatra episode is described as part of a “Netflix Documentary Series.” Whatever this is, it isn’t a documentary. If you want to play around with history, I don’t get terribly upset as long as the product—play, novel, film, whatever—stays in the realm of story-telling and doesn’t pretend to be a representation of fact. Both “this isn’t the likely, but it’s plausible” and “wouldn’t it have been interesting if…” are reasonable.
Thus, presenting “Cleopatra” with a black or black-presenting title character isn’t inherently problematic. We know who Cleopatra’s father was, but her mother’s identity is unknown, so she could, hypothetically, have looked rather like Adele James. There’s no evidence of that, but neither can it be denied with absolute certainty. But whereas the BBC just wanted to be “surprising” (i.e. they wanted a gimmick), this project not merely presents Cleopatra as black, but hints at some sort of conspiracy among, well, actual historians and archaeologists to deny that “fact.”
Of course, another difference is that no sentient adult would believe that Anne Boleyn was black, but there’s a tiny chance that Cleopatra was. Interestingly, this makes the current incident more problematic, since a black 16th century Englishwoman is, by definition, fictional, whereas a black Egyptian queen from the 1st century BCE is remotely possible, and cannot as easily be rejected outright. (It can, and should, be rejected as fact.)
What actually is a fact is that at least some actual current-day Egyptians are incensed by the casting in a way that Brits were not a couple of years ago. There were, no doubt, a fair number of UK residents who were put off by the casting of Jodie Turner-Smith as perhaps the most famous English queen who was not actually the monarch (in other words, not Victoria or either Elizabeth). But there were, to the best of my knowledge, at least, no claims similar Mahmoud al-Semary’s accusation that Netflix was trying to “promote the Afrocentric thinking … which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”
It’s difficult to say, of course, to what extent the reported outrage is representative of the feelings of the Egyptian public at large. There is a good chance that some of the response is indeed motivated by anti-black racism, and certainly the Daily Mail is less than a totally objective publication. Still, whereas the attempt to shut down Netflix in Egypt is perhaps an over-reaction, these people are serious about the accurate portrayal of their history. In this country, of course, utterly specious claims (especially but hardly exclusively about race) from both the left and the right pop off faster than zits on prom night.
I do find the imdb descriptions of the first two series of the “African Queens” program interesting. On the page for the first four-episode series, “Njinga,” we get this “Expert interviews and other documentary content with premium scripted docudrama about different queens.” The similar blurb for “Cleopatra,” however, reads as follows: “A fictional account of what the life of Cleopatra was imagined to have been like if she was a black woman.” A little honesty from the folks at imdb! The series is still tagged as “documentary” and “history,” however. Don’t ask how that works; it’ll only hurt your brain.
Two other unrelated observations: in the Daily Mail article you linked, Jack, we see Gal Gadot’s defense of her casting in a Cleopatra movie (which has now been delayed if not scrapped altogether): “We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” What utter nonsense! I’ll bet the retirement nest egg that there are multiple Macedonian actresses fully capable of playing the role. What they lacked wasn’t ability; it was international stardom. These are not interchangeable terms, and the latter will, more often than not, take precedence over the former.
Finally, I note that Netflix is run by morons. But we knew that.
Terrific analysis. I thank you, Cleopatra thanks you, Yul Brenner thanks you. Comment of the Day.
Yes, indeed. Mose . . . erm . . . Charlton Heston . . . thanks you, too.