Netflix s docuseries on the Egyptian queen
Netflix’s much anticipated, controversial docuseries Queen Cleopatra, which finally aired this week, has stirred debate as many Egyptians and – later – non-Egyptians decried its historical inaccuracy and the way it forces American social justice issues on ancient Mediterranean history. Though a professor of classics, Shelley P. Haley, the academic behind the decision to cast the black British actor Adele James in the role of a woman who was in all likelihood half Greek, half Egyptian and had no sub-Saharan blood at all, is “expert in applying Black feminist and critical race approaches to the study and teaching of Classics” according to Wikipedia. That might explain a line of dialogue in the first episode, with a grandmother addressing her granddaughter: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.”
But, once they saw James in the trailer, many Egyptians felt “I don’t care” was less an expression of historical or even moral truth than an ideologised view actively falsifying history to impose an Afrocentrist agenda that doesn’t even recognise the simple fact that, regardless of anti-black racism or legacies of enslavement anywhere in the world, Mediterranean North Africa has been inhabited by races different from those of the rest of the continent. The four-episode docu-drama, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith, is the second season of the African Queens series, and purports to present an overview of the life journey of the Ptolemaic queen, Egypt’s last pharoah who ruled for 21 years in a male-dominated world, tried and failed to maintain Egypt’s independence against Roman incursion, and decided to kill herself as a result. Directed by Tina Ghavari, it is a bland show that offers no new insight into the famed queen’s life.
It is remarkable how many academics and authors appear in the show considering it is based around a complete fib: Debora Heard, an expert in Nubian archaeology and Egyptian studies; Islam Issa, author of Alexandria: The City that Changed the World; Sally Ann Ashton, author of Cleopatra and Egypt; Colleen Parnell, Egyptologist; and Jacquelyn Williamson, expert in the art and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean.
During her 21-year reign, Cleopatra turned Egypt into Rome’s breadbasket, a fact reflected in James repeatedly saying, “There is no Rome without Egypt” but not borne out by information about the ways in which she increased and expanded trade.
Ptolemy I Soter arrived in Egypt in 332 BC as one of the generals of Alexander the Great, who managed to repel the Persian Achaemenid that had ruled Egypt since the sixth century BC. He established the Hellenistic Ptolemaic kingdom in 305 BC. The series opens with Soter’s descendent Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father, dying in 51 BC, and leaving the throne jointly to the 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, who must marry her according to the traditions of the Ptolemaic dynasty and travels to Thebes for the installation of the new, sacred Buchis bull, worshiped as an intermediary of the god Montu in the ancient Egyptian religion. Soon enough Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s disagreements result in a civil war that sees Cleopatra fleeing to Syria to gather support to take back the throne from her brother in 48 BC.
In 47 BC, Julius Caesar (John Partridge) arrives to Egypt as one of the stations of his military campaign in the region. Cleopatra manages to win him over. Their relationship develops and they have a son, Caesarion, born in 47 BC. All this is presented mainly as commentary, without dramatic enactments of battles or convincing characters, and the only evidence cited for Cleopatra’s blackness is that her mother was Egyptian. Caesar is murdered by Ptolemy, and his successor Mark Anthony (Craig Russell) – he too is romantically involved with the princess – summons Cleopatra back to Egypt where an alliance is announced and she is crowned Queen of Egypt in 51 BC ruling jointly with her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV, whom she married though this did not get in the way of her relationship with Mark Anthony, who divorced his wife Octavia when he started to have children with Cleopatra; their older daughter Cleopatra Selene would rule later.
In 31 BC, the emperor Octavian declared war on Egypt, and in the Battle of Actium Antony’s naval forces were defeated, forcing him and Cleopatra to retreat to Alexandria. Octavian’s forces invaded Alexandria in 30 BC and Antony committed suicide when he heard a rumour that Cleopatra had killed herself. Cleopatra followed shortly after, famously committing suicide by allowing an asp to bite her. The documentary gathers all the narratives of Cleopatra’s suicide.
In the West, since Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra has been remembered for her love story with Mark Antony and their tragic end that marked the end of Egypt’s independence and the beginnings of Roman rule. The role was played by Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton, and perhaps Afrocentrism is understandable in this context. But the fact remains that, while probably not “white” in the modern sense, Cleopatra was not black as such. To all intents and purposes she would’ve been Egyptian, steeped in the Hellenised culture and looking like the slightly later Fayoum mummy portraits, which actually showcase a very wide range of skin tones still in evidence among Egyptians. Aside from the issue of race, however, the Netflix series wasted the opportunity to showcase Cleopatra’s intelligence, ambition and political acumen on a forced ideological argument completely irrelevant to Egypt.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly