Netflix and Jada Pinkett Smith are entombed in controversy as Egyptian history experts and the country’s government have hit back at an upcoming Queen Cleopatra-focused documentary for historical inaccuracies.
Queen Cleopatra is the second season of the African Queen’s docuseries, set to be released on May 10, and features Black British actress Adele James in the lead role, a casting decision by Netflix as “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.”
However, officials in Cairo have hit back, calling it a ‘blatant historical fallacy’.
The Egyptian government issued a statement on Thursday, escalating the feud which has sparked demands for the cancellation of the show.
Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry has argued that the documentary nature of the film means that it is subject to a high standard of accuracy, requiring “those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts.”
“Coins and statues from the time show a light-skinned woman, in keeping with Cleopatra’s Macedonian Greek ancestry,” an official from the ministry added.
Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities secretary-general Dr Mostafa Waziri echoed the sentiment, adding that his concerns were “far from any ethnic racism, stressing full respect for African civilisations and for our brothers in the African continent that brings us all together.”
Queen Cleopatra reigned from 51 to 30 BC, as the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and after her much-discussed death by self-inflicted snake bite, Egypt became a Roman colony.
Roman writers including Plutarch and Cassius said that she was light-skinned and of Macedonian descent. However, other scholars have argued that it is possible she could have been one-quarter Egyptian, without much credible evidence.
Egypt’s foremost modern-day archaeologist Zahi Hawass has also reiterated the confirmed ancestry of Cleopatra, who was born in Alexandria in 69BC.
The controversy has pushed into the light an ongoing discussion Egyptians are having about racism and colourism in modern-day Egypt, a country which has its own black population.
Denison University associate professor Rebecca Futo Kennedy, however, thinks the entire debate would have been irrelevant in Cleopatra’s time, explaining, “If we want to be more historically accurate, we need to understand how ancient peoples considered their ethnicities, instead of universalising and de-historicising our own views.
“The reality is that one can say there were ancient Egyptians we would today consider ‘Black’ in so far as they were non-Arab, non-Phoenician, Africans.
“Ideologically, women were associated with pale or ‘white’ skin and men with dark or ‘black’ skin. This is a gender division, not ethnic or modern bio-racial.
“Asking if Cleopatra was black, white or another race suggests that these categories are universal and not historically contingent categories.”
The Queen Cleopatra mini-series will start streaming on Netflix on May 10.