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Why is Netflix's Queen Cleopatra so controversial?

Adele James as Cleopatra in African Queens: Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)
Adele James as Cleopatra in African Queens: Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)

Netflix’s new Queen Cleopatra documentary is already at the centre of much controversy, despite having only just premiered on the platform.

The four-part documentary, which landed on the streaming service on 10 May, focuses on the Egyptian ruler’s life, and her reign from 51 to 30 BC.

Cleopatra became the last Pharaoh of Egypt after succeeding her father Ptolemy XII, and following her death the country became a part of the Roman Empire. It is not known who Cleopatra’s mother was.

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Queen Cleopatra is the second season of Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens series, and the actor continues to narrate the documentary like she did for the first season which focused on Queen Njinga — a 17th century warrior who ruled over Ndongo and Matamba (modern day Angola).

Pinkett Smith told Netflix’s Tudum in April that she chose to focus on Cleopatra in the second season of the documentary series because she felt “we don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens.”

Watch the trailer for Netflix's Queen Cleopatra

The actor added: “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.

“The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”

The streaming giant has drawn the ire of Egyptian scholars, though, because of its decision to depict the last Pharaoh of Egypt as a Black African.

Adele James as Cleopatra in Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)
Adele James as Cleopatra in Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)

In the documentary, Queen Cleopatra is portrayed by British actor Adele James, who is mixed race and whose heritage Netflix felt perfectly suited the ruler because of “the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race.”

Netflix explained its decision in an article on its companion website Tudum, in which the streamer said: “During the time of her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial.

Read more: Egypt’s Council of Antiquities Wades Into Netflix Cleopatra Row (Deadline, 3 min read)

“Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known. Some speculate she was a native Egyptian woman, while others say she was Greek.”

The Egyptian antiquities ministry spoke out about the docudrama in April and, according to the Independent, said in a statement that Cleopartra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics.”

The statement added: “Bas-reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof.”

According to a report from the BBC in April, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has filed a complaint against Netflix for depicting Cleopatra in this way, claiming that the show was trying to “erase the Egyptian identity.”

Adele James as Cleopatra in Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)
Adele James as Cleopatra in Queen Cleopatra (Netflix)

Hawass is said to have insisted that the Egyptian ruler was “light-skinned, not black,” and, per the publication, he added: “Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilisation is black.”

In the wake of the docudrama's release, Egypt's Al Wathaeqya channel has said it will be making its own show about Cleopatra that will be based on the “utmost levels” of research and accuracy

The network is a subsidiary of Egypt’s state-affiliated United Media Services and it intends to portray the Egyptian ruler as light-skinned, according to a report from Variety.

Following the controversy, James was hit with racial abuse and trolling on social media and the actor called this out on Twitter.

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In a tweet where she included screenshots of some of the racial abuse she’d received, James wrote: “Just FYI, this kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my account. You will be blocked without hesitation!!!

“If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”

African Queens: Queen Cleopatra is out on Netflix now.