The trailer for the latest season of ‘African Queens’ sparked a massive controversy because it features a Black actress as Cleopatra. Enraged Egyptians insist their queen was a light-skinned Greek. But does anyone know Cleopatra’s ‘race’? In part one, we look at the debate over Black vs White Cleopatra. In part two: we look at a far trickier question: did ‘race’ even exist in the ancient world?
Researched by: Rachel John and Anannya Parekh
First, tell me about this Netflix series…
The trailer: Last week, Netflix dropped the trailer of the new season of ‘African Queens’. This instalment of the four-part docu-drama is titled ‘Queen Cleopatra’—who is played by the biracial actress Adele James. And a Black expert featured in the trailer flatly declares: “Cleopatra was Black. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.” This is not exactly surprising since ‘African Queens’ is the brainchild of exec producer Jada Pinkett Smith—who wants the show to represent Black women:
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them,
You can see the trailer below:
The backlash: The trailer enraged many Egyptians—who say the claim that a Black Cleopatra is more “authentic”—or true to history—is just plain false. Zahi Hawassa— prominent Egyptologist and former antiquities minister—declared: "This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black." He added:
The black civilization has no connection with the Egyptian civilization, Hawass said, pointing out that the black civilization did not rule Egypt except in the twenty-fifth dynasty during the era of the Kingdom of Kush, i.e. at the end of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
On Sunday, a lawyer filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor take "the necessary legal measures" to block Netflix in Egypt.
Ok, so is Cleopatra really Black?
Well, let’s start with the single known fact: she was certainly not Anglo-Saxon—which is how she has been represented over centuries of Western art.
Sexy Cleo: Cleopatra first came into vogue in the Middle Ages—as an “exemplary” character of antiquity. More accurately, she became a blank canvas on to which white male painters could project their desires:
In the 17th century, Bell says, patrons had the flexibility to ask for representations that pushed toward their “other desires, whether they’re erotic or what have you.” If you wanted to commission something sexy, in other words, it was just fine to ask for a picture or sculpture of Cleopatra.
This Cleo was always up for a bit of naughty fun—as this version who emerges half-naked from a carpet to distract a busy Caesar:
The erotic queen of death: More oddly, depictions of her death—allegedly from a snake bite—became a bit of an artistic fetish. Example:
In these depictions, she was unarguably white—and even blonde, as in this case:
And in some cases, she’s even wearing European clothes:
Enter Elizabeth Taylor: No one did more to cement the whiteness of Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor—whose performance in the 1963 film is now the stuff of legend. If our lead image isn’t dazzling enough, here’s another example of her magnificent version of the queen:
So why did people start claiming she was Black?
The slavery debate: Her race first became a subject of debate in the nineteenth century. Some claimed her mother was Nubian—which made her Black. Others insisted she was simply Greek. This debate was especially fraught in America—where abolitionists were challenging slavery:
For abolitionists, Cleopatra was a symbol of what Black Africans could do if left to themselves. For pro-slavery groups, she was Greek and descended from the Ptolemies. That's the only way you could explain her greatness: that she was racially white.
The legendary Black artist Edmonia Lewis created a sculpture of the queen with “distinctly African facial features”—which she claimed was supported by actual historical research into ancient coins that bore her likeness. More importantly, Lewis “promoted her work as truthful rather than imaginative.” You can see her sculpture below:
Enter Afrocentrism: Over decades, this ‘reclaimed’ version of Cleopatra became central to an Afrocentric view of ancient Egypt:
The idea that Cleopatra was black has a long history in African American thought, especially within the black nationalist and Afrocentrist movements. Many have claimed Egypt to be a black nation, and one from which ancient Greece stole its culture and ideas. For a people enslaved and oppressed, and living within a racist world that loudly proclaimed they had come from a continent with no history, the lure of Egypt, and of Cleopatra, as black was often irresistible.
In the 1960s, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan claimed that “African Americans suffer from a stolen legacy of cultural riches, of which white European racists have conspired over the centuries to keep them unaware.” One such theft was the Black identity of Egypt’s pharaohs.
Point to note: The claim that the pharaohs or Cleopatra was Black has long been debunked—but to little effect:
In their view, the lack of historical evidence to support their claims is due to a white conspiracy and thus should be ignored, with Afrocentrist proponents calling until the 1990s for an African-based view of world history. In short, this narrative is a clear reaction to centuries of dehumanizing racist practices and slavery: a rejection of the “uncivilized savages” historical identity projected on Black people by white slavers and an attempt to form a proud historical identity as the descendants of Black African kings “who built the pyramids” and “kick-started civilization.”
Looping back to Netflix: Jada Pinkett Smith’s views are, therefore, rooted in this bit of Black history. It is also how Netflix defended its casting choice—as “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.” More oddly, some Black historians have cited the vilely racist ‘one drop rule’ to make their case. This was the rule imposed by white slave owners—who insisted even a drop of Black blood makes a person non-white. That same rule is cited to by Black historian Shelley Haley:
My grandmother was white, had straight black hair, and the nose of her Onondagan grandmother, but she was “colored.” Even as a “Greco-Egyptian, ” Cleopatra was a product of miscegenation. How is it she is not Black?
Haley claims Cleopatra’s biracial identity became a shameful secret—buried by European white historians.
Why this makes Egyptians mad: Many Egyptians see this Afrocentric claim as blatant appropriation of their history and culture. The Netflix series added fuel to an already simmering fire:
For many Egyptians who have taken part in the debate, this is just another attempt by Westerners and their pop culture to deny their link to their ancient ancestors and their accomplishments in order to deprive them of their glorious heritage. First it was the ahistorical claim that Jewish slaves built the pyramids, then it was aliens, and now the series is seen as the latest frustrating and disrespectful attempt by the Afrocentrists to deny Egyptians their history, cast them as historical frauds and destroy their national pride.
Hollywood’s casting choices don’t exactly help. Rumoured picks for a new Cleopatra flick included Zendaya (who is half white and half Nigerian) and Gal Gadot (who is Israeli and Jewish). As Mahmoud Salem writes: “It’s the kind of Sophie’s choice in casting that would make Egyptian nationalists’ heads explode.”
Counterpoint to note: Egyptian reaction has just as much to do with the culture’s discomfort with its Black people—and connection to Africa:
It’s a reaction that draws on many threads, from a nationalist yearning to project a unique Egyptian identity to a strand of anti-blackness and a desire to differentiate the Arab world from “sub-Saharan” Africa, itself a category that only emerged in the 20th century.
The bottomline: In part two, we look at what we know about Cleopatra—and why the debate over her race may be completely misplaced.
Independent UK does a good job of summing up the controversy over Cleopatra’s race. The Netflix magazine Tudum lays out the views of the makers of the series. We suggest you read Shelley Haley’s essay making a case for a Black Cleopatra—since we can hardly do justice to its nuances in an explainer. Mahmoud Salem in New Lines is brilliant in unpacking the reasons for Egyptian outrage. Art UK and Artsy have wonderful essays on the depiction of Cleopatra through the ages. Smithsonian has more on pioneering Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis.