Why Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra' garnered criticism, including from Egypt's famed Zahi Hawass

Aya Salah , Tuesday 18 Apr 2023

Netflix's upcoming historical documentary miniseries, Queen Cleopatra, has drawn criticism from Egyptians with former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass criticising the series for providing inaccurate information about ancient Egypt.

A still photo of Adele James as Cleopatra in Netflix s Queen Cleopatra trailer


“Cleopatra was not black; as a Greek, she was similar to the queens and princesses of Macedonia. During the 25th dynasty, the Kingdom of Kush ruled Egypt and those were Kushite pharaohs, but they had nothing to do with ancient Egyptian civilization,” Hawas stated on Sunday on his Facebook page.

He explained that he is not against black people at all, but he is just presenting evidence that the queen was not of black descent.

Why is the series receiving backlash? 

Narrated and produced by Hollywood actress and Will Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, "Queen Cleopatra" is part of the African Queens docuseries, which aims to highlight the lives of female African rulers.

The trailer shows a dark-skinned actress playing Cleopatra, causing one commentator to say, “I don’t care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was black.”



This is where the controversy around the film takes place because, historically speaking, Cleopatra does not have black African roots. 

According to scholars from Oxford University, Cleopatra was primarily of Ptolemaic Greek descent, with some Persian and Sogdian Iranian ancestry.

“It has been suggested that Cleopatra's mother was from the family of the priests of Memphis. If this were true, then Cleopatra may have had at least 50 percent Egyptian ancestry,” Newsweek quoted Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University, as saying.

People’s reactions to the documentary 

In the past couple of days, two Egyptians created a petition to cancel the four-episode miniseries on Change.org, which received over 85 thousand signatures in under two days from people around the world.

However, the website suspended the petition, claiming that it “violates its community guidelines.”

Later on, another petition began widely circulating online to call out Netflix for its falsification of history.

Many internet users argue that while it is essential to acknowledge historical figures of African descent, it is equally important to represent them accurately.

"This has nothing to do with empowering black people; actually, it's the opposite; it's history theft. You need to respect nations' civilizations and histories," a Twitter user said.

“Cleopatra was not black; she was a Greek Queen of Egypt. Even worse, the CEO of Netflix Ted Sarandos is Greek-American. He’s allowing a blackwashing of Greek history,” another Twitter user said.

The Russian Embassy in Egypt criticised the documentary on Twitter, calling it "American propaganda" and highlighting what they view as double standards in American media regarding freedom of expression.

Many media outlets and commentators from Greece have also criticised the documentary for historical inaccuracy. Many media outlets and commentators from Greece have also criticised the documentary for historical inaccuracy. 

What can we do to combat misleading narratives about Egyptian history?

Monica Hanna, a renowned Egyptologist, suggests producing more Egyptian works that highlight Egypt’s history and culture.

“We [Egyptians] have ancient Egyptian literature containing many stories that can be used to produce thousands of films, but this requires a genuine will to reframe the past in a new way, rather than simply transmitting what others teach people,” Hanna said on her official Facebook page.

Hanna emphasised the crucial role that media plays in raising awareness and spreading accurate narratives in international spheres instead of submitting to the dominating narratives that can be inaccurate and misleading.

Short link: