Why Angelina Jolie needs to step down from Cleopatra

Angelina Jolie as Queen Olympias in Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’ (Warner Bros.)
Angelina Jolie as Queen Olympias in Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’ (Warner Bros.)

This year, British actor Ed Skrein set a new precedent in the film industry by quitting a role in the ‘Hellboy’ reboot because his character, Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the source comics. His replacement, ‘Lost’ star Daniel Dae Kim, applauded the move for “championing the notion that Asian characters should be played by Asian or Asian American actors”.

Now, with the news that Denis Villeneuve is in talks to direct Sony’s new ‘Cleopatra’ movie, it’s time for Angelina Jolie to follow Ed Skrein’s example by doing the right thing and recusing herself from the role

The actress has long been linked to Sony’s biopic, based on Stacy Schiff’s bestselling biography ‘Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile’, and while there’s no denying she is a great actress and would do a good job in bringing the infamous Egyptian queen to life, she’d be playing a far bigger role in continuing the terrible trend of whitewashing in Hollywood.

Cleopatra’s ethnicity has long been debated by scholars. She was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greek Macedonian family that ruled Ancient Egypt for 275 years, between 305 to 30 BC, but because of the intermingling with the Persian aristocracy at the time, she was considered to have both Greek and Persian heritage.

File photo: Elizabeth Taylor starred in the famously lavish 1963 production of “Cleopatra”
File photo: Elizabeth Taylor starred in the famously lavish 1963 production of “Cleopatra”

However, historians don’t know for certain who her mother or paternal grandmother were. It’s assumed that Cleopatra’s mother was the sister or cousin of Ptolemy XII Auletes, Cleopatra V, because of the family’s trend of marrying relatives to maintain the bloodline, but the Pharaoh was known for having several wives and some have suggested he took an Egyptian noblewoman as one.

It’s because Cleopatra could speak Egyptian that historians have suggested her mother was native to the North African country because no other ruler in her family could speak their tongue, and, as the historian Duane W. Roller points out, her own daughter “honoured the Egyptian religious elite” in Mauretania (Algeria) – after becoming their queen – which suggests they were her ancestors too.

So, it seems more than likely that Cleopatra was not as white as the women who have brought her to life on screen. She was probably mixed race, of Greek Macedonian, Persian and Egyptian descent, with an olive to light brown skin tone not unlike my own. I am a mix of Caucasian and North African heritage and one thing’s for sure, my skin colour is nothing like Angelina Jolie’s.

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Mighty Heart’ (Paramount Vantage)
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Mighty Heart’ (Paramount Vantage)

But, it doesn’t surprise me that the actress has been in talks for the role. Back in 2007 she donned a curly wig and fake tan in ‘A Mighty Heart’ to play Mariane Pearl, a woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. She got away with it then but nowadays that sort of whitewashing won’t be accepted. Just look at the backlash over ‘The Great Wall’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, and ‘Aloha’ which all arguably suffered at the box office in the wake of their negative press.

One would think that Jolie would want to be a part of changing this aspect of the industry as the mother of children of varying ethnic backgrounds. Wouldn’t she like to have her kids see more faces that looked like them on screen and telling their stories? It certainly seemed the case with her latest film, ‘First They Killed My Father’, which she was inspired to make because of her Cambodian-born son.

It tells the true story of a child soldier serving under the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide and the entire cast, as well as some 3,500 background performers and 500 crew members, were made up of Cambodian natives. Surely she can understand that as a pale-skinned white woman, the idea of her getting to play the role of a mixed race Egyptian queen is pretty frustrating for both ethnic actresses and audiences alike.

Representation for people of colour, is still so limited in Hollywood, especially in historical films. How often do you see a period piece that centres on a person of colour, that isn’t about slavery, their subordination or perpetuates a white saviour narrative? Rarely. Cleopatra is one of the most empowering figures in the history of civilisation. Having a brand new movie centred on her dramatic rule should open the door for an actress of colour to tell that story.

It shouldn’t see a repeat of ‘Prince of Persia’, ‘Exodus: Gods And Kings’, or ‘Gods Of Egypt’ by having white performers playing ethnic characters.

Angelina Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ is streaming now on Netflix.

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