Netflix debuted the trailer for the upcoming four-episode docudrama Queen Cleopatra last week — to the absolute confusion of many. Available to stream on May 10, Queen Cleopatra, part of executive producer and narrator Jada Pinkett Smith’s extended African Queens series, has Black British actress Adele James cast as the historically Macedonian-Greek Ptolemaic ruler. Social media users and historians alike were astonished by the trailer’s repeated assertions that Cleopatra was actually a Black Egyptian woman, criticizing both Pinkett Smith and the streaming platform for rewriting history instead of centering the stories of historical Black women in positions of power.
Pinkett Smith launched her African Queens series production with the intent of educating herself and others about Africa’s legendary Black queens. “As the mother of a young Black woman, it is important to me that she learns the lessons of the African Queens who paved the way for the success of generations of Black women,” Pinkett-Smith said of her endeavor in 2021.
The trailer’s dramatic music and generic talking points of women’s empowerment were supplemented with James’s very English accent and three tidbits of cutaway interviews of unnamed contributors either hypothesizing or outright saying that Cleopatra was Black and/or Egyptian.
“I remember my grandmother telling me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black,'” one of the interviewees said. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees.
A flood of responses stacked up under the Netflix “Strong Black Lead” Twitter account’s post with the promotional poster for the docuseries, ranging from total confusion, outrage, and slapstick-y if not totally offensive memes of other historical figures being race bent. Many pointed out that the docuseries’ revision of history was offensive to both Egyptians and Greeks and that “Blackwashing” historical figures isn’t the antidote to the lack of representation for people of color in the entertainment industry.
“They could have focused on actual African queens, like Amina of Nigeria, Ana [Njinga] of Angola, or Nandi of the Zulu Nation,” TikTok user Jianna Ewuresi said in a video. (It’s worth noting that the first season of African Queens, which premiered on February 15, did focus on Njinga, Queen of Ndongo, and Matamba.)
Cleopatra and her siblings were born in Egypt to reigning pharaoh Ptolemy XI Auletes, a member of the Macedonian-Greek Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled over the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Ancient Egypt between 305 and 30 BCE during the Hellenistic period. There is some discourse surrounding the ethnic makeup of the Ptolemaic lineage — most scholars qualify the dynasty as Macedonian-Greek with threads of Persian and Sogdian Iranian through intermarriage with the Seleucid dynasty that once controlled West Asia. The identity of Cleopatra’s mother also remains a mystery, stimulating further discourse about the pharaoh’s ethnic makeup.
Cleopatra was the last queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty and was known for her political-romantic trysts with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony during her bids for total control of the kingdom of Egypt with support from the Roman Empire.
The criticism of the upcoming docuseries made waves across Egypt as former minister of antiquities and Egyptian Nationalist Zahi Hawass also threw in his two cents. Hawass told Egypt Independent that Cleopatra was Greek, “meaning that she was blonde, not Black,” and that this mischaracterization of the Ptolemaic lineage was advanced by proponents of Afrocentrism who argue, among many other things, that Ancient Egyptians were a Black civilization. “Netflix is trying to stir up confusion to spread false information that the origin of Egyptian civilization is Black,” Hawass continued to Egypt Independent last week. Diasporic Egyptians Maha Shehata, a fashion model, and Aikk Yasser, a musician, even created a Change.org petition calling for Netflix to cancel the release of the docuseries as it was “falsifying history,” garnering almost 85,000 signatures within two days until the platform removed it.
And while the views of Egyptian Nationalists are not representative of everyone in the nation, writes Mahmoud Salem for New Lines, “not a single self-respecting Egyptologist ventured into the Black Cleopatra debate, because they know that Cleopatra was not even Egyptian, let alone African.”
Adele James has restricted comments on her social media for the time being since the negative feedback regarding the production has been pouring in, telling amateur critics that if they don’t like the casting, they shouldn’t watch the show. “Either way, I’m GASSED and will continue to be,” James wrote on Twitter last Thursday alongside some screenshots of negative comments.