African Queens

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Cleopatra, c44-46BC.

African Queens is a 2023 docudrama focusing on female monarchs, airing on the streaming service Netflix. The series is produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith and features dramatized fictional re-enactments as well as interviews with experts. The first season covers Njinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba, and is directed by Ethosheia Hylton. The second season focuses on Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Pharaoh Cleopatra VII Philopator, better known simply as Cleopatra, and is directed by Tina Gharavi.[1]

Queen Cleopatra

While the first season was praised the second depicted Cleopatra as African, which is not consistent with contemporary depictions of her nor her known ancestry. Cleopatra had a Macedonian Greek father, King Ptolemy XII Auletes. Her mother was likely his wife Cleopatra V, also Macedonian Greek. Historians have pointed out that if she was illegitimate that her Roman enemies would have pointed this out when attacking her. None did.[2]

In contrast the Ancient Roman hsitorian Strabo did imply that Cleopatra was illigitimate however he gave no indication as to the identity of her mother.[3]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 20% of 15 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 4.6/10. The website's critics' consensus reads, "Queen Cleopatra may posit some fresh speculation about the ubiquitous monarch, but its glossy presentation errs more towards a superficial toga party than a substantive endeavor." Metacritic assigned Queen Cleopatra a weighted average score of 45 out of 100, based on 5 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph gave it just 2 out of 5 stars, saying, "It's too soapy for serious history fans, and not enough of a soap for viewers who like juicy historical dramas." The Indian Express writer Rohan Naahar says that "you don’t quite get an idea of who Cleopatra was as a person[...] She’s projected, funnily enough, as a Beyonce-like figure." Naahar criticized the production design of the show, saying that Queen Cleopatra "[didn't] feature a single archive photograph of the palaces in which she lived, or of her many sculptures, or even paintings of her most famous conquests — both geographical and romantic."[4]

Casting of Cleopatra

Cleopatra is played by Adele James in the second season's dramatic reenactment scenes. James is a British actress who is Black and of mixed ancestry; her skin color caused controversy over the depiction of Cleopatra's ethnicity.[5]

CBS News interviewed Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist, who said, "I am against the film because it is pushing an Afrocentric agenda, regardless of the historical accuracy of whether Cleopatra was Black or White." She compared it to modern European political parties, stating that it was "Appropriating the ancient Egyptian past."[6]

The government of Egypt responded to the casting decision negatively. Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities stated that the series represented a "falsification of Egyptian history." The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Archaeology through the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities released a statement on the issue, saying that "Queen Cleopatra was light-skinned and (had) Hellenic features." They cited Roman and Ptolemaic Greek coins, statues, and other depictions of Cleopatra as evidence, adding his complaint was "far from any ethnic racism, stressing full respect for African civilizations and for our brothers in the African continent that brings us all together."[7]

Former antiquities minister and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass was critical of the second season. He said, "This is completely fake. Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek, meaning that she was light skinned, not black," adding that "Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilisation is black."[8]

Other responses from Egypt include an Egyptian lawyer who sued to block Netflix in the country, alleging that Netflix was promoting Afrocentrism and attempting to erase Egyptian history. The Egyptian channel, al-Wathaeqya, announced it was producing a documentary about the "true" life of Cleopatra in response to the "revisionism" of the Netflix series. Several evening talk shows on Egyptian television discussed and criticized the series as well.[9]

Director Gharavi defended the casting, stating, "Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress". Producers of the series stated that "[Cleopatra's] ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt."[10]

Adele James questioned the validity of the concept of "blackwashing" and expressed her disappointment with racial perceptions "that people are either so self-loathing or so threatened by Blackness that they feel the need to do that, to separate Egypt from the rest of the continent". James continued her response in a podcast with Steph's Packed Lunch, stating that “[…] And I think it’s distressing for anybody to receive any level of abuse, let alone the scale and the nature of what I’ve received, which is fundamentally racist, all of it.” James voiced her concern that criticizers undermined the character, saying “If you watch it is a very small part of the conversation really, this is about the fullness of who this woman was and she was a human being and she shouldn’t be reduced to her race any more than I should or anybody should.”[11]

See Also

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