Calls for Netflix to be blocked in Egypt amid anger over casting of black Cleopatra

The docuseries has been called 'completely fake' and accused of appropriating Egyptian culture

The casting of British actress Adele James, centre, as Queen Cleopatra has led to claims that history is being distorted. Netflix
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Netflix's casting of a mixed-race actress as Cleopatra in its docuseries that had its premiere last week has caused anger in Egypt, home to the Ptolemaic queen who ruled in late antiquity.

The response to British actress Adele James playing the role has included claims of “blackwashing” Egyptian history and calls from politicians and lawyers to sue or block the streaming service.

Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities, described the documentary as “completely fake”. Comedian Bassem Youssef said it amounted to the distortion and appropriation of Egyptian culture.

Speaking to The National, Mr Youssef said the casting mirrored what he called a “dangerous narrative” promoted by the Afrocentric movement, which critics say projects grievances over the slave trade and colonisers on to modern Egyptians.

“This is a very sensitive topic, because whenever the conversation goes into the black and white area, people assume it's about racism,” he said. “But then, with the repetition of the continuous portrayal of Egyptians as sub-Saharan black Africans, it takes on an underlying tone of them claiming the culture and calling us colonisers.”

Netflix has described the casting of James as a “creative decision”, but Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo believes the issue is not that simple.

“It would have been fine if they were blind-casting Cleopatra. But it's a documentary,” she told The National.

The uproar in Egypt over the latest docuseries adds to the controversy surrounding Queen Cleopatra, 2,000 years after she ruled Egypt.

The whereabouts of her burial place, for example, are still unknown. The last monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra is believed to have taken her own life alongside her lover, Roman general Mark Antony, following their defeat by Octavian at the Battle of Actium, ending a life that shaped the world in the 1st century AD.

Her looks and character have been widely debated, with historians arguing over whether she was stunningly beautiful or highly skilled in the art of seduction.

She was the first monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty — founded by the Macedonian general Alexander the Great around 300BC — to learn the language of ancient Egyptians. She also maintained the tradition followed by most Ptolemaic rulers by embracing Pharaonic rituals and beliefs, and she was a student of philosophy and science.

The casting of James has prompted some Egyptians to look at their collective ethnicity, in a nation made up of various races — the result of a long history of foreign invasions and interracial marriages during, in some cases, centuries of foreign occupation.

A majority Muslim nation with a large Christian minority, Egypt is also home to indigenous communities with little in common with the vast majority. They include a Nubian community in the south, whose members are dark skinned and have their own language. There is also the Amazigh-speaking community in the west of the country with cousins across much of North Africa and the Sahel region.

Queen Cleopatra is part of a series of docuseries by Netflix called African Queens, now in its second season.

Hanaa Rizqallah, a politician on Egypt's foreign relations committee, said that Netflix's black Cleopatra was part of the West's repeated attempts to falsify and distort “historical facts” related to Egypt's civilisation.

“It's a blow against the Egyptian identity and a malicious attempt to influence new generations and robbing the Egyptian civilisation of its fundamentals,” she said.

Another politician, Saboura El Sayed, said the documentary fed the ideology of Afrocentrism and called for a ban on Netflix in Egypt.

Lawyer Mahmoud El Samary complained to the nation's chief prosecutor over Queen Cleopatra, demanding that authorities block Netflix. Another lawyer, Amr Abdel Salam, called on the government to sue Netflix in the American courts and demand financial compensation.

“Most Egyptians' objections to the show and the primary reason for frustration in Egypt is not due to racism and it is not about Adele James,” historian Sara Khorshid wrote in an article published on Sunday in Foreign Policy. “It is about the decision by the makers of the show to challenge historic anti-black racism in the United States through revisionism of another racialised people's own history without caring about how these people might react.”

Ms Khorshid said the uproar over the docuseries was also related to the rise of xenophobic nationalism in the years after the 2013 overthrow of a president from the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. The group's ideology, she argued, focused almost entirely on Egypt's Islamic identity, excluding the significance of the nation's Pharaonic, Christian and Roman eras.

The white European heritage of Elizabeth Taylor when she played the Egyptian queen in the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra did not spark charges of Hollywood “whitewashing” until many years later.

“The main issue with this one is that it is categorised as a documentary,” said Yasmine El Dorghamy, publisher and editor of Rawi, a cultural heritage periodical in Egypt.

“Blackwashing Cleopatra is laughable. Of all the Egyptian monarchs, they chose one who is Macedonian. For her to be black is so far-fetched, even if we are not sure of her mother's ethnicity,” she told The National.

Ms El Dorghamy said racist responses to the casting of James have done a huge disservice to the cause of Egyptians defending their civilisation. She also accused the Afrocentric movement of attempting to hijack the nation's history.

“It is a case of a foreign people rewriting our own history and writing us out of it. In effect, they are denying the fact that I am a descendant of my own ancestors.”

Youssef, the US-based Egyptian comedian, says the outrage is not about Cleopatra herself.

“For us, Cleopatra is a Greek Macedonian queen who comes after generations of the Ptolemies occupying Egypt. It's not about black and white. I mean, at the end of the day, she is an invader.

“It is not about Cleopatra, it's about the trend of erasing us as Egyptians from history.”

He points to various groups claiming that either Jewish, white or black people built the pyramids. “And if it's not any of these three, it's the aliens.”

Updated: May 17, 2023, 9:54 AM