Commotion·Group Chat

Netflix's Queen Cleopatra has spurred new debates about race and identity in historical casting

Culture critics Syrus Marcus Ware and Pacinthe Mattar discuss the controversies surrounding the new Netflix series Queen Cleopatra and what it suggests about the influence of race and identity on viewers' interpretations of both our own histories and that of others.

Syrus Marcus Ware and Pacinthe Mattar discuss the controversies surrounding the series' latest installment

A woman puts on a gold crown.
A still from Netflix's Queen Cleopatra. (Netflix, Inc.)

Cleopatra is the latest subject of a Netflix documentary series produced by Jada Pinkett Smith exploring the lives of iconic African Queens.

The new season, titled Queen Cleopatra, follows the story of her beauty, romances and her political brilliance, as well as the questions that remain surrounding her heritage. But when the trailer for the series debuted, it sparked a conversation about historical portrayals of race and identity, particularly within Egyptian communities.

Culture critics Syrus Marcus Ware and Pacinthe Mattar join host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to explain why the trailer inspired such a strong reaction from viewers, and the greater ongoing conversation around race, identity and Blackness in depictions of ancient Egypt.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Elamin: Pacinthe, you are Egyptian, and Hollywood has this long history of portraying not just Cleopatra, but Egyptians in films — the most famous example is probably Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra. How have you felt about Hollywood's track record in this particular department?

Pacinthe: It's a mix of a few things. It's a pride; we love a little Hollywood glamor, we love to see ourselves on the map. But there's also — and especially as time has gone on — a protectiveness, a wariness, a kind of side-eye-ness, and a question of: when do we get to contribute to our own depictions, especially in these very major ways?

Elamin: I like this idea of side-eye-ness. So, every time that a new movie is coming out and involves some kind of depiction of Egyptians, do you kind of go, "Oh, here we go again"?

Pacinthe: Yes. There's people living within Egypt, there's Egyptians in the diaspora, and everyone has so many feelings about this. It's such a kaleidoscope of issues. But I know the reactions are always going to be strong — and it's because we're so fiercely protective of our own history, and there's a long history of Egyptians being excluded from the telling of their own stories. So it gets very tense, very fast, as you can tell by what's happening with Queen Cleopatra.

Elamin: That makes sense to me. Syrus, let's dig into the negative reaction that we're seeing towards this new series. When you think about this show and the reaction it has gotten, what in your mind is at the root of these tensions?

Syrus: Well, I think it's telling that we're seeing this reaction to the depiction of a Black Cleopatra in ways that we maybe didn't see in relation to Elizabeth Taylor, a white woman playing Cleopatra. And I'm not quite sure why it's so — I mean, I do know why it's so charging to see a Black Cleopatra, and part of that is because of some deeply-rooted ideas about what we think about celebrating Blackness.

WATCH | Official trailer for Netflix's Queen Cleopatra:

Elamin: Pacinthe, how do you see the story?

Pacinthe: I have talked about this for hours since the trailer came out. Like I said, it's a kaleidoscope of issues. I think it's so weird that Jada Pinkett Smith chose to go with Cleopatra, who we actually know is of Greek/Macedonian background. She's actually from an invading, colonizing family — and so it's a weird start to a series about African queens. I think there are genuine questions about what Cleopatra looked like, and I also think there is a very deep undercurrent of anti-Blackness to the reactions. I think Egyptians are much more comfortable seeing us depicted as Elizabeth Taylor than Adele James. But I also think there is no hard-and-fast truth about what Cleopatra looks like. She has often been depicted as a light-skinned white woman. I think if she was Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston, I don't think we'd be having this conversation. They would be rolling out the red carpet for her in Egypt and they would be saying, "Welcome, we love you." But suddenly it's like, "No, we don't look like that. That's not who we are."

I think there's also what's seen by some Egyptians as an imposition of these classifications of race that we don't actually use in Egypt. Is this to say there are no Black Egyptians or there are no biracial Egyptians? Not at all. But I think this is seen as a kind of Western imposition of Egyptian history at a time when our artifacts, our antiquities are sitting in Egyptian and British museums. So I think there are so many issues here, and a lot of it stems from the exclusion of Egyptians in the retelling of our own history. But I also don't want to underplay just how much anti-Blackness factors into this. So much of it has been on the appearance of Cleopatra and her hair … There's a real obsession with fairness in Egypt. Colonialism is a hell of a drug. I think that's why the reactions are so strong.

Elamin: Colonialism absolutely is a hell of a drug. The other hell of a drug is, of course, the void of not being able to trace your ancestry, Syrus. There's this idea of African Americanness as sort of looking towards Africa, but not particularly being able to place American Blackness within the context of where in Africa…. Syrus, I want to ask you about the concept of Afrocentrism. Can we just explain what Afrocentrism is real quick?

Syrus: Afrocentrism is just a way of looking at the world, history, knowledge, community, from the perspective of historical African people and African diasporic communities. So it's a way of viewing events, people, histories from a Black lens. I actually think that this is a response to a decidedly anti-Black lens we've seen through history that erases the contributions of Black people. An Afrocentric approach, rather, centers Blackness at the core of these historical movements.

Elamin: So these Afrocentric sentiments towards Egypt might be new to some people, but they've been showing up in pop culture for decades, Pacinthe…. How have you felt about the way that Black Americans sort of project their African lineage towards Egypt?

WATCH | Official music video for Michael Jackson's Remember The Time:

Pacinthe: I love it. I think it's a point of pride. I actually remember the first time I saw Michael Jackson's Remember the Time video. I immigrated here in the '80s from Egypt. We were in the basement at my Egyptian friend's house and it appeared, and we were like, "Oh my God, it's us on TV, and Michael Jackson is putting us on!" I think it's a beautiful thing. I derive a lot of pride from it. I think there's a kinship and a sense of familiarity. Having immigrated here from Egypt, there's an immediate sense of being welcomed, being claimed. I think there's a lot of interconnectedness, and I wish we would lean into that more instead of having these very kind of tense conversations pitting Egyptians against Blackness, because I don't think they're mutually exclusive. But I personally love it. These pictures of Louis Armstrong and Angela Davis and Obama and Malcolm X being in Egypt were very formative. I'm like, "Yo, that's us!" So I think it's a point of pride and beauty.

Elamin: When you take that moment of pride, of seeing yourself reflected, it's a really beautiful thing. But then you get the reaction that you have to this series, right? What would you say the reaction was in your community when the trailer for Queen Cleopatra first came out?

Pacinthe: So many reactions — everything from laughter to frustration…. Especially as a conversation about cultural appropriation and the retelling of history has kind of gained steam and we've become more aware, it's like, when do we get to tell that? And this kind of Western cultural imposition of, "This is how we're going to tell it." I actually looked at the credits — I saw nary an Egyptian name. There's one Egyptian expert.

I think this is just the latest in a series of depictions of Egyptian history that exclude Egyptians. I think the Egyptians are mad, but I also think in this case they're kind of too mad for the wrong reasons, or for reasons that are almost besides the point. There's a hyper-fixation on Cleopatra's race, and I think we're missing the larger point. I do get the frustration, but I'm also kind side-eyeing the critique a little bit because most of us look like Adele James in Egypt. We actually don't look like Elizabeth Taylor. But again, Cleopatra was a Hellenic person. We don't know what her mother's lineage was; she was probably mixed. So, it's a curious choice.

Elamin: I'm obsessed with this point of view because you are bringing all of these nuanced elements into play … I'm glad that you brought up the idea that there's not a lot of Egyptians who worked on this show because I think I saw more Egyptians directly work on Marvel's Moon Knight, where Oscar Isaac somehow ends up with the powers of an Egyptian god, than on this series that is supposed to be about Queen Cleopatra. That is a big part of the conversation here.

Pacinthe: Absolutely.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Ty Callender.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.