Netflix’s Black Cleopatra docudrama spurs furious Egyptian broadcaster to create rival with light-skinned lead

Netflix’s Black Cleopatra docudrama spurs furious Egyptian broadcaster to create rival with light-skinned lead

The controversy over Netflix’s new Black-led docudrama about Cleopatra is raging on as an Egyptian broadcaster vows to create its own high-end series to rival it.

Since the first trailer for Queen Cleopatra, which is executive produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, arrived last month, there has been uproar in Egypt over its casting. Netflix was forced to disable comments on the trailer as they turned hostile and occasionally racist.

The debate stems from the contested nature of real-life Cleopatra’s racial identity. In Queen Cleopatra, the Egyptian ruler is portrayed by Black British actor Adele James.

After the trailer’s release last month, the antiquities ministry of Egypt released a statement saying that Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics”.

“Bas-reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof,” the ministry’s statement said.

Now, the Al Wathaeqya channel – which is a subsidiary of Egypt’s state-affiliated United Media Services – has announced the production of its own high-end documentary about Cleopatra, which it claims in a statement is based on the “utmost levels” of research and accuracy, Variety reports.

The Independent has contacted Netflix for comment.

Adele James in ‘Queen Cleopatra’ (Netflix)
Adele James in ‘Queen Cleopatra’ (Netflix)

Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC, succeeding her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC.

Much of her lineage, including her mother’s race, is unknown, and therefore her precise skin and hair texture are up for debate.

Queen Cleopatra’s director Tina Gharavi has previously opened up about the backlash surrounding the documentary’s casting.

“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” Gharavi wrote. “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians, it seems to really matter.

“After much hand-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did,” she added.

In an interview with Netflix’s Tudum website, Pinkett Smith said: “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and 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.”

Queen Cleopatra is out now on Netflix.