Comment Of The Day: “If Cleopatra Was Black, Maybe I Am Too!”

Once again I am confronted with the phenomenon of a Comment of the Day that is better written than the Ethics Alarms post at issue. This happens a lot (Curmie, today’s author, is a repeat offender). I am torn about it, actually: the comments here contribute greatly to the value of the blog, and my original concept was to create a colloquy of articulate readers interested in ethics who also bring different backgrounds and perspectives to the issues. The high quality of commentary obviously validates that mission; it’s only my fragile ego that suffers. Curmie, like several others who participate regularly here, is an experienced blogger himself. He’s also a better proof-reader than I am (though I found one typo this time, making my day).

But I digress. The topic of Curmie’s Comment of the Day is the controversy over Netflix suggesting that Cleopatra was black in a new series, a matter Ethics Alarms raised in the post, “If Cleopatra Was Black, Maybe I Am Too!”

From here on, it’s all Curmie; I’m just going to sit by quietly feeling inadequate…


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 to 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.

19 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “If Cleopatra Was Black, Maybe I Am Too!”

  1. Actually, I think there were three typos this time, which, naturally, I noticed precisely three seconds after clicking “post comment.”

    But, of more significance, I saw this comment on some news story about the controversy posted to Facebook. The writing is inelegant and clearly not proofread, but the point is well made.

    “I think the issue with this one is as far as I’m aware this is in a series that’s meant to tell the stories of various black rulers and has been marketed as such, the fact they’ve chosen a Macedonian and just changed her race is disrespectful to the many black rulers with fascinating stories to tell it implies they couldn’t be bothered to look for them and has a whiff of that’ll do all whilst being self congratulatory. I don’t think there’s any issue in a fictional depiction like Shakespeare having a person of any race play cleopatra but in this case it’s a bit like saying for black history month we’re going to study Sven Forkbeard, cast idris Elba in the movie and saying look we’re showing black history we’re enlightened”

    • That was similar to my take as well.

      I’m on record: I don’t particularly care when there’s a race swap for a character. Morgan Freeman played a great “Red” in Shawshank, although the name kind of lost something in translation. Samuel L. Jackson played a great Nick Fury. But there are limits to that. If the race of the character is important to the narrative of the movie, as an example, and topically: When Idris Elba played Roland in the Dark Tower, it undercut any possible relationship the gunslinger might have had with Detta Walker. But Idris Alba is Idris Alba, so they just wrote Susannah and Eddie out and focused on Roland and Jake. That annoyed me, because I think Susannah was the best part of that series. But regardless…

      This is worse. A character is being race swapped when the race of the character matters, not because history is materially different based on the melanin content of Cleopatra’s skin, but because the director of the series is on record saying that these are supposed to represent black history. Not only is this disrespectful to actual black monarchs throughout history, with interesting stories (and it doesn’t take much imagination or Googling to find a few), but it really does steal something from the cultures being erased. I’ve often said that cultural appropriation as used by progressives isn’t a thing, that using the artefacts of other cultures is not only a celebration of those cultures, but it’s necessary. Life cannot be a race to plant your rhetorical flag into things in order to dog-in-the-manger them away from everyone that doesn’t look like you.

      This is actual cultural appropriation. This isn’t a celebration. This isn’t transformative. This is just straight up theft. The parallel would be a Greek girl claiming the invention of braided hair.

      This isn’t new. The “We Wuz Kangs” phenomenon from last decade was explicitly about this issue. The ADL described it:

      ““We Wuz Kangs” is a racist catchphrase and collection of memes directed at African-Americans and other people of sub-Saharan African descent. Originating in 2015 and popularized by the website 4chan, the phrase is a racist shorthand reference to discredited but popular Afrocentric theories that claimed sub-Saharan Africans were descended from ancient Egyptians.

      The phrase and meme are intended to mock the Afrocentric theories and, by extension, anyone who might believe in them. Users employ phrases such as “We Wuz Kangs,” “We Wuz Kings,” and “Kings N Shiet,” featuring mock black American dialect that is intended to portray blacks as ignorant and a contrast to the ostensibly more civilized ancient Egyptians. Meme versions of the phrase similarly tend to feature images with racist stereotypes of black people, often contrasted with images of Egyptian pharaohs. The overall intent is to portray blacks as crude, ignorant and uncivilized.

      Memes featuring the phrase often include an image of an African leader taken from The African Kingdoms expansion of the video game Age of Empires II, which debuted around the time the meme was created in 2015. Usage of the meme seemed to increase with the release of the popular movie Black Panther in 2018.”

      Now don’t get me wrong… It was a meme, and you can just imagine the images associated with the words and the flavor text. The ADL isn’t concerned with the underlying point people posting pictures of monkeys captioned with slurs might have, they focus on the slurs and monkeys, which were absolutely present. But it does go to show that Afrocentrists have been covetous and absconsive of Greek, Egyptian and Middle Eastern culture long before 2023, and that it has always been met with mockery.

      • “Samuel L. Jackson played a great Nick Fury.”

        Not many people seem to know this but Nick Fury had already been drawn in the comics as a black man as far back as 2001–long before any of the Marvel Studios movies were ever made. The artists at Marvel Comics had actually used Samuel L. Jackson as the inspiration for the new character design, so when the time came to actually cast Nick Fury in a movie, SLJ was an easy pick–in fact the ONLY pick.

        SLJ as Nick Fury was NOT a case of a black man cast as a character currently known to be white.
        SLJ as Nick Fury was a case of a black man cast as a character currently known to LOOK EXACTLY LIKE THAT PARTICULAR BLACK MAN.


        P.S. Insert obligatory joke about Laurence Fishburne here. SLJ is a jerk.

  2. Lefty’s in another bind. (I think I’m going to start calling liberals ‘Steve Carltons’.) The Egyptians are pissed their cultural heritage is being expropriated by American black people. But I guess Egyptians don’t matter. Even though in all other instances their being NOT American would elevate them to the highest grievance position that would trump anything else, here, they are “calling out” behavior by black Americans. Can’t have that, can we? You can’t keep track of these things, even with a scorecard. Under normal circumstances, Egyptians would not be considered white, they would be deemed oppressed by European colonists. But gee whiz, I guess the Egyptians aren’t willing to sit in their assigned seat on the bus. Nervy, non? They have a pretty darned old culture of their own. Hmm.

    • We could solve a large part of the illegal immigration problem by simply making everything between El Paso and the Panama Canal part of the United States.

  3. Even without googling I can think of a couple.

    Haille Selassie and Shaka.

    Not only black rulers, but also victims of European colonialists.

    A twofer.

  4. I should also note that my claim that the Gal Gadot vehicle “has now been delayed if not scrapped altogether” is not entirely accurate. I guess three years might long enough to call the project delayed, but imdb says the project is in pre-production.

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