Where Netflix’s Cleopatra fails and where it could’ve succeeded

I’ve been asked to review the Netflix “documentary” about Cleopatra. A hatchet job is too easy to be any fun, so let me start by mentioning a few positives.

First, if you close your eyes, most of the historical details spouted by the various talking head experts are more or less accurate, although they do spend a lot of time speculating on the protagonists’ emotional states.

Second, if you open your eyes and watch the documentary without connecting it with any known history, it’s a reasonably well-acted, engaging alternate-history fantasy story.

Third, the lead actress inhabits the role with conviction and credibility. Adele James does just fine. As an opera person, I’ve never had a problem with Leontyne Price playing Madama Butterfly or Placido Domingo playing Otello. Performance art is by its very nature not reality. I don’t think it’s right to judge an actor by how similar the real actor is to the person portrayed—quite the opposite. When I see Meryl Streep as an old Jewish male rabbi in Angels in America, I’m astounded by her virtuosity, not offended because she’s not an old man.

However, not surprisingly, critics of this series have zeroed in on the series’ portrayal of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, the last in a line of inbred Macedonian Greeks, as a Black person. (Indeed, I’ve read all sorts of online comments for years about how Cleopatra was “African American.” What? American?) But actually, Cleopatra being portrayed as Black, though the most visible aspect of a documentary that claims to be about real history, is just a small part of the problem.

“African Queens” is a series of documentaries that aims to highlight powerful Black women in history. This is a noble aspiration. African American women could do with such role models after centuries of oppression. It is a great idea, and there are all sorts of possibilities that would be great subjects. One that springs to mind is the Queen of Sheba—a powerful ruler, a diplomat, an intellectual. And in case one is in any doubt of her skin color, it’s in the Bible: Song of Solomon, Ch. 1, Verse 4. Then there’s Hatshepsut. A queen who ruled Egypt in her own right, who expanded trade, had huge building projects, and was a badass, even though she had to wear a fake beard whenever she acted in an official capacity. And a real Egyptian woman, accepted as such by Egyptians, unlike Cleopatra, a scion of a ruling dynasty from Greece whose subjects were at times not too accepting of the “foreign yoke.”

Hatshepsut was clearly an African Queen… a great subject for this series, right? Except she was not, in the sense implied by this series, “Black”.

So, I think we first have to consider what “Africa” is because to the producer of the series, it’s Africa as in “African American”—not even the entirety of the continent of Africa, home to a vastly diverse variety of ethnicities from sub-Saharans to Ethiopians to Boers to Arabs to Berbers. And even less is Africa in the 1st Century BC. In that period, Africa was the name of a Roman province to the west of Egypt, consisting largely of the former homeland of the Carthaginians. If you asked a Roman geographer of the period to point to Africa on a map, he would be pointing to Tunisia.

In all of what was called “Africa” around 50 BC, there weren’t that many Black people (as the term is understood these days). In Egypt, which I remind you wasn’t even “in” Africa during that period, there were also not many Black people. Some, to be sure. Egyptian murals frequently show a few Black people, sometimes as war captives. They are clearly differentiated from Egyptians.

So, as long as you ignore the context and use modern geography and terminology, Cleopatra VII Philapator was an African Queen. Just not within the sense that the showrunners want to sell you on.

Now let’s talk about Alexandria.

Alexandria was Egypt’s greatest city during this period and one of the greatest cities in the Mediterranean. It was founded by Alexander the Great, who had conquered Egypt three centuries before, wresting it from the Persian Empire. Alexandria wasn’t just a great city—it was a Hellenistic city, created to be the shiny new center of Greek culture in the region. Athens and Corinth were living in their glorious pasts. Alexandria was, in a real sense, the capital of the Greek world. And indeed, a major center of the Jewish world. And not long after the events in the world, also a main hub of the Christian world. Alexandria was one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities ever, but it had a Greek majority with smaller populations of native Egyptians and Jews.

The problem with the Cleopatra documentary, then, isn’t primarily that Cleopatra herself is played by a woman who appears Black. Color-blind casting can be effective, and as I’ve already said, Adele James performs very well.

It is rather that all of Alexandria’s population is shown as being Black as well. A city famed for its diversity has been stripped of the thing that made it one of the great cities of the ancient world. This was an opportunity to showcase an amazing intellectual and humanistic achievement within the continent of what we now call Africa.

One of the key dynamics of the Ptolemies’ rule was the continual tension between the native Egyptians and their interloping Greek overlords. Making the city and the overlords all look the same basically wipes out one of Cleopatra’s greatest achievements—her ability to create a détente between the various ethnicities she ruled—partly by being the first Ptolemy in three centuries to even learn the Egyptian language and speak it fluently.

Let’s ignore the superficialities of whether Adele James looked like the “real” Cleopatra. Arguably, Elizabeth Taylor and Claudette Colbert had about as much (or as little) resemblance to the beak-nosed portrait on Cleopatra’s coins.

I do think there’s an element of racism in those who jumped all over this show JUST because Cleopatra wasn’t shown as “white”. I do think it’s fair for people, women in particular, to want to see themselves reflected in strong, intelligent, and empowered women in history. I also think that it’s high time we got away from fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesuses and having instances where a John Wayne would play a Genghis Khan.

I would welcome a fantasy or alternate-history fiction film with a Black Cleopatra—a sort of cross between “Bridgerton” and “I, Claudius.” I loved the fantasy version of Queen Charlotte in the latest incarnation of the Bridgerton series. And actually, there is some documentable, if unlikely, speculation about Queen Charlotte of England having had a Black ancestor at nine generations’ remove.

But the Netflix Cleopatra positions itself as a “documentary”—meaning that the viewer expects to learn something. And the very first shot of this “documentary” is a talking head expert who tells us that, despite everything she was ever taught, her grandmother insisted that Cleopatra was Black. So right from the start, we are on shaky ground. We are to believe, not contemporaneous historical records, portraits, coinage, sculptures, or archaeology, but someone’s grandmother. As a documentary, they lost me right there.

Thinking of future African Queens to cover, how about Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra? She singlehandedly captured much of the Roman East from the Romans, and although Palmyra is in Syria, which was not in Africa last time I looked, she also annexed Egypt and crowned herself Empress… making herself an African Queen. She also claimed to be descended from the Ptolemies. She heroically took on the entire Empire, around three centuries after Cleopatra lost Egypt to the Romans. Fiery woman, a great leader. A real African Queen. Oh, wait a minute. She wasn’t Black, either.

So please, let’s go back to historical documentaries that don’t advance 21st-century political agendas. Let’s save the latter for clearly labeled mockumentaries, or alternate history fantasy movies, or “inspired by historical events” works. In the end, the only real problem with Netflix’s production was that it wasn’t correctly labeled. Had it been clearly marked with a “what if,” the Egyptian government wouldn’t be screaming about how the show makes a mockery of their thousands of years of documented history.


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