CAIRO — Egypt has accused Netflix of misrepresenting history by casting a Black woman to play Cleopatra, its most famous historical figure, in a new series.
“Queen Cleopatra,” which is released May 10, features Adele James in the lead role, a casting decision that the streaming giant says is “a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race” but which officials in Cairo have dismissed as “blatant historical fallacy.”
The government statement issued Thursday marked an escalation in a feud that has sparked demands for the show's cancellation, amid a broader debate over representation in popular culture.
The eight-episode docudrama is executive produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith.
But Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities argued that the documentary nature of the feature “requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts.”
Coins and statues from the time show a light-skinned woman, in keeping with Cleopatra's Macedonian Greek ancestry, it argued.
Dr. Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in the statement that Cleopatra’s appearance in the show was a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy.”
He added that his complaint was “far from any ethnic racism, stressing full respect for African civilizations and for our brothers in the African continent that brings us all together.”
Representation of historical figures on screen has fueled heated debates across the world, but especially so in a country with such a rich history as Egypt, which has made its ancient past a huge part of its modern national identity and tourism industry.
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The famous queen, who was crowned Cleopatra VII and reigned from 51 to 30 BC as its last ruler, was the direct descendent of Ptolemy I Soter, bodyguard to Alexander the Great and founder of the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic Kingdom.
After her much-discussed and dramatized death — according to popular legend due to a self-inflicted snake bite — Egypt became a Roman colony.
Roman writers including Plutarch and Cassius Dio, known for chronicling the Roman and Greek worlds during Cleopatra’s reign, said Cleopatra was light-skinned and of Macedonian ancestry.
Other scholars have argued it is possible she could have been one-quarter Egyptian.
“Egyptians did not bear the features of sub-Saharan Africans,” said Dr. Samia Al-Mirghani, former director general of the Center for Research and Conservation of Antiquities, in a statement citing evidence from anthropological studies and DNA tests.
Inscriptions on ancient tombs and statues, she argued, “portrayed the [ancient] Egyptians with features as close as possible to the contemporary Egyptians. She admitted however that there was “a great diversity” among Egyptians due to the kingdom’s fluid, international nature.
One of Egypt’s most famous archaeologists and twice-serving antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, was adamant: Cleopatra was not Black.
“If we see statues and forms of her father and brother, we will not find any evidence supporting this claim that she was black,” he said in a statement.
Hawass added that Egypt at the time of Cleopatra’s reign ruled over the Kingdom of the Kush, also known as Nubia, in what is now Sudan and southern Egypt, with its distinctive Black African culture. “But they have no connection with the Pharaonic civilization,” he said.
The creators of a petition on change.org calling for the show to be canceled said it had more than 100,000 signatures before it was taken offline without warning. NBC News has approached Change.org to ask if the petition was taken down and, if so, the reasons why.
Both Netflix and Nutopia, the production company behind “Queen Cleopatra,” did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Egyptian lawmaker Saboura al-Sayyed this week repeated an earlier call for Netflix to be banned across the country.
This is not the first time the casting of Cleopatra has sparked controversy. Israeli actor Gal Godot made headlines in 2020 when she was chosen to play the role in a forthcoming movie, leading to accusations of "whitewashing."
Writing in Variety last week, the Netflix show’s director, Tina Gharani, wrote that as a child she watched Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood portrayal of Cleopatra, but had always wondered about the accuracy of the casting: “I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?”
She argues that while the queen was descended from Macedonian royalty, “Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.”
Gharani wrote that the casting of a Black actor was a political act, one that has seen her become the target of an online hate campaign.
“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,” she said.
James, the actress playing the iconic queen, fired back at critics in a recent Twitter post featuring screengrabs of abusive comments that included a racist slur. “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show,” she said.
Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo, and Patrick Smith from London.