‘Queen Cleopatra’ Director Responds to Racial Casting Backlash

"We can be certain she wasn't white like Elizabeth Taylor," director Tina Gharavi said of casting the iconic ruler. "She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston."
Queen Cleopatra
Adele James in "Queen Cleopatra"

“African Queens: Queen Cleopatra” director Tina Gharavi is addressing the casting of biracial Black actress Adele James as the titular Greek-Egyptian ruler.

The trailer for Netflix docuseries “Queen Cleopatra” caused a stir and led to allegations that the streamer was “blackwashing” the heritage of Queen Cleopatra VII. Egyptian scholars claim that Cleopatra, who was born in Egyptian city Alexandria in 69 BCE, was born of European descent and not Black. Historians have confirmed that Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek on her father Ptolemy XII’s side but her mother’s ethnic origin is unknown.

Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the nation’s public prosecutor to request that Netflix be blocked in Egypt due to the promotion of “Afrocentric thinking” including “slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.” Two petitions to “Cancel Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’” circulated with more than 88,000 signatures combined.

“Queen Cleopatra” director Gharavi spoke out on the political backlash to the docuseries. Gharavi cited Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic portrayal of the ancient queen in 1963 epic “Cleopatra,” which made history as one of the most expensive films ever made at the time, as a direct influence to helming “Queen Cleopatra.”

“I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?” director Tina Gharavi wrote in an op-ed for Variety. “With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?”

The Persian-Iranian director continued, “After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece. Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? 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.”

Gharavi speculated, “Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am OK with this.”

Gharavi confirmed that during production, she “became the target of a huge online hate campaign” with Egyptian citizens accusing her of “‘stealing’ their history.”

“Some threatened to ruin my career — which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much!” she said. “No amount of reasoning or reminders that Arab invasions had not yet happened in Cleopatra’s age seemed to stem the tide of ridiculous comments. Amir in his bedroom in Cairo wrote to me to earnestly appeal that ‘Cleopatra was Greek!’ Oh, Lawd! Why would that be a good thing to you, Amir? You’re Egyptian.”

Gharavi gave insight into casting biracial Black actress Adele James as Cleopatra.

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

She summed up, “So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”

Lead actress James took to Twitter on April 13 to respond to backlash at her casting, writing, “Cleopatra was a queen, not a slave. 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!”

“Queen Cleopatra” is narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who told Netflix’s Tudum that the project was to “represent Black women.”

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