The new Netflix docudrama series “Queen Cleopatra,” produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, has already elicited a passionate response, though perhaps not the kind that publicists hoped for. Since news broke that the series would star the British actress Adele James, fans, Egyptologists, scholars of Greco-Roman antiquity and Arab and Greek news outlets have been debating whether the series willfully distorts history. The reason? “Queen Cleopatra” depicts the legendary monarch as Black.
Cleopatra, who died in 30 B.C., remains a source of pride for disparate communities. Many contemporary Egyptians view her as a key figure in the preservation of their history and even as a role model for contemporary Egyptian women. Greeks have also claimed her, noting that she was of Macedonian and Greek descent.
Depictions of Cleopatra with darkly pigmented skin date back at least hundreds of years. A 14th-century chronicle depicts her in a kind of charcoal gray. Scholars have long debated whether certain references in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” suggest that the playwright believed she had dark skin. In contemporary American pop culture, the assertion is often stated as fact, with her characterized as a beautiful and powerful Black African queen, her name commonly referred to as such in hip-hop.
“Queen Cleopatra,” however, has touched an international nerve. The debate around the docudrama escalated when an Egyptian lawyer called for Egyptian authorities to censure Netflix, accusing it of misrepresenting “Egyptian identity.” Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities for Egypt, also entered the fray, claiming that a “falsehood” stands “at the heart of this series.” Cleopatra’s “first language was Greek,” he wrote in an essay for Arab News, “and in contemporary busts and portraits she is depicted clearly as being white.”
What debates like this miss is that current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves. Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen to use to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.
The question that follows is: How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?