Debates over the race of Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” series miss the point of her cultural impact, according to a guest essay from the New York Times.
Dr. Gwen Nally and Dr. Mary Hamil Gilbert, both university professors, published an op-ed titled “Fear of a Black Cleopatra” upon the release of the series Wednesday.
The series’ first trailer originally faced backlash for being an inaccurate depiction of the historical figure. Cleopatra is portrayed by Adele James, a Black actress, despite several historians and Egyptian critics pointing out that Cleopatra was likely not Black. “Queen Cleopatra” producers, however, have insisted that there is evidence to suggest that she could have had Black ancestry.
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Nally and Gilbert claimed that both of these arguments miss the point regarding Cleopatra’s background and the misunderstood concept of how she is seen “culturally.”
“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,” they wrote.
The essay continued, “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.”
They also cited Cleopatra expert Dr. Shelley Haley who commented that “although evidence of her ancestry and physical attributes are inconclusive, Cleopatra was culturally Black.”
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“Dr. Haley argues that Cleopatra’s experience was part of a history of oppression of Black women. Reclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture. Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist,” Nally and Gilbert wrote.
An Egyptian lawyer recently sued Netflix over its depiction of Cleopatra, calling it a “forgery” and attacked the streaming service for the “crime” of misleading viewers. The lawsuit demanded an investigation into Netflix’s management, a ban on the streaming service in Egypt and a block on any broadcast that could misrepresent Egyptian history or identity.
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James, the star of “Cleopatra,” recently called out this lawsuit as well as Egyptian critics during a podcast following the show’s release.
“I find it sad 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. I think it’s even more important that we’re telling this story the way that we are because actually we don’t know. It’s a big question mark. Was she mixed race? Was she not? She wasn’t Black, we know that, but she might have been part Black absolutely,” James said.
Nally and Gilbert concluded by insisting that Cleopatra can be recognized as “culturally Black” based on the cultural identity of oppression that she faced at the time.
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“To recognize Cleopatra as culturally Black is not to pretend that skin color is meaningless now — in the manner of recent figures like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, who claimed a cultural identity that was not theirs. In our society, race and racism are deeply entwined with skin color and other inherited physical traits. We cannot understand modern forms of oppression without understanding how phenotypical difference contributes to them, and we cannot legitimately claim a racial history without having lived it,” they wrote.
The essay concluded, “Cleopatra lived it. And it’s that experience, not her physical attributes, that should determine how we imagine her life.”