Cleopatra director speaks out after backlash to casting Black actress
Casualty star Adele James is playing the legendary Egyptian queen in a new Netflix docudrama.
The director of the upcoming Netflix docudrama Queen Cleopatra has addressed backlash about casting a Black actress to play the lead role – explaining that "it's more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele [James] than Elizabeth Taylor ever did".
Casualty star James was announced as the lead for the series earlier in April, but the casting was met with backlash in Egypt – with one lawyer even filing a lawsuit against Netflix, accusing the streamer of trying to "erase the Egyptian identity".
However, in a new piece for Variety, director Tina Gharavi hit back at those critics, explaining that she realised "what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress" while researching the project.
"For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right," she wrote.
"Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter."
She added: "After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did."
More specifically addressing the backlash with Variety, Gharavi explained that she became the focus of an online hate campaign after being accused by some of 'blackwashing' and 'stealing' Egyptian history.
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"No amount of reasoning or reminders that Arab invasions had not yet happened in Cleopatra’s age seemed to stem the tide of ridiculous comments," she continued.
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The upcoming series will look at the story of Cleopatra VII Philopator, also known as the Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC – and its last active ruler.
Speaking of the series, executive producer Jasa Pinkett Smith said: "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! Cleopatra is a queen who many know about, but not in her truth.
"She’s been displayed as overtly sexual, excessive, and corrupt, yet she was a strategist, an intellect, a commanding force of nature, who fought to protect her kingdom… and her heritage is highly debated. This season will dive deeper into her history and re-assesses this fascinating part of her story."
Queen Cleopatra premieres on Netflix on Wednesday 10th May 2023. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.
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