The star of Netflix’s much-discussed docudrama ‘Queen Cleopatra’ says the furor over her role as the Egyptian ruler is ‘fundamentally racist’.
English actress Adele James, 27, plays the role of the seductive queen who became the most famous monarch from the land of the pharaohs.
The trailer contains claims that Cleopatra VII was black with “curly hair.” One historian claims in the preview, “I remember my grandmother saying to me, I don’t care what they tell you at school, Cleopatra was black.”
Egyptians reacted with dismay to the apparent rejection of documents proving Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek. An Egyptian lawyer has filed a case with the country’s prosecutor demanding that Netflix be shut down.
Appearing today on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch, Adele addressed the high-profile criticism about being a black actress playing Cleopatra, saying: “It would be naive of me to say I wasn’t expecting anything at all, but that I didn’t expect the scale of it.
And I think it’s distressing for anyone to receive any level of abuse, let alone the magnitude and nature of what I received, which is fundamentally racist, anything.
Adele James and John Partridge, who play Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in Netflix’s new docudrama, discussed the racial controversy on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch
Netflix 2023 drama ‘Cleopatra’ sees actress Adele James in the title role of Queen Cleopatra
“People talk about the wrong things. Yes, we don’t know where her mother came from or her paternal grandmother, but the show is also about so much more than the question mark about her race.
“If you look it’s actually a really small part of the conversation this is about the completeness of who this woman was and she was human and she shouldn’t be reduced to her race any more than I should or anybody . ‘
Cleopatra was famously played by white English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 historical epic
Adele appeared on the show with her co-star John Partridge, best known for his time in EastEnders.
He added: ‘The controversy is about Cleopatra being black, I don’t hear anyone say that Julius Caesar is a homosexual from Manchester.
“At the end of the day, we’re just actors, and sometimes our morality is brought into play, we’re actors.”
Adele also spoke of the support of Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who narrates and executive produce the series.
She said: ‘She was so involved in the casting process, she watched all our audition tapes, she gave feedback on the rushes when we were filming in Morocco.
“And she’s just been such a champion of the project from the beginning. I mean, it’s her baby.
“She is an African queen and I feel it couldn’t be more relevant and important that she is the figurehead of this. She’s an icon.’
Zahi Hawass, Cairo’s former antiquities minister, condemned the documentary as “completely fake.” Cleopatra was Greek, which means she had fair skin, not black.’
A painting of a villa at Herculaneum in modern-day Campania depicting a red-haired woman whose features, royal diadem and coiffure decorated with fine pearl-studded hairpins suggest a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra (left) and an engraving by J Chapman made in 1804, showing a romanticized 19th century conception of Queen Cleopatra (right)
‘Blackwashing’ in other movies and shows
Anne Boleyn (2021)
Black English actress Jodie Turner-Smith played the Queen of England in a British TV series. Anne Boleyn was white and the second wife of King Henry VIII.
Saint Joan (2020)
Black New Yorker Condola Rashad played the French heroine Joan of Arc in a stage production of the story set in the 15th century. In the play, Rashad is an unaffirming Joan.
Troy: Fall of a City (2018)
In the TV drama, Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, is played by black English actor David Gyasi.
The Hollow Crown (2012 – 2016)
Sophie Okonedo, a Nigerian-British actress, played Queen Margaret of Anjou in the Shakespearean TV adaptation. Margaret, of French descent, was Queen of England and married to King Henry VI from 1445 to 1461.
Once upon a time (2011 – 2018)
The ABC series about fairy tales has a black actor Sinqua Walls as Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot is a British character who acts as one of King Arthur’s closest companions and one of the greatest knights of the Round Table. Arthur was a legendary king of Great Britain and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition.
Robin Hood (2006 – 2009)
In the BBC series, black English actor David Harewood played the role of Friar Tuck.
Friar Tuck is one of the legendary Merry Men, the band of heroic outlaws in Robin Hood folklore set in England’s Sherwood Forest in the 15th century.
Hawass said the only rulers of Egypt known to be black were the Kushite kings of the 25th dynasty (747-656 BC).
“Netflix is trying to create confusion by spreading false and misleading facts that the origins of Egyptian civilization are black,” he added, calling on his compatriots to take a stand against the streaming giant.
Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the prosecutor on Sunday, demanding that he take “necessary legal measures” to block access to Netflix.
He claimed the show contained content that violated Egyptian media laws and accused Netflix of “promoting Afrocentric thinking … including slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing Egyptian identity.”
Cleopatra was famously played by white English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 historical epic.
Three years ago, plans for a new movie about the Queen starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot sparked a backlash from people who insisted the role go to an Egyptian or African actress.
Gadot defended the decision saying, “We were looking for a Macedonian actress to suit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.’
The anger over Netflix’s direct programming comes after it appeared to ditch wake messages last year.
Netflix took a hit in the first half of 2022, losing about 1,170 million subscribers as rivals like Paramount+ and Disney+ reeled them in.
The massive drop was seen by some as a direct result of the company’s belated response to its viewers’ demands to tone down their waking agenda.
But after deciding to support figures like comedian Dave Chapelle, it bounced back. Netflix added 1.75 million new subscribers for the quarter of 2023, nearly 550,000 more than consensus estimates, and contrasts sharply with the loss of 200,000 subscribers the company suffered in the same period last year.
The four-part Cleopatra series explores the legacy, intellect and life of Cleopatra VII, the Greek Queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC.
The trailer notes that Cleopatra belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty, but then disputes her parentage.
Controversy: The show, which airs May 10, depicts Cleopatra as black, despite historical records showing she was of Macedonian Greek descent
Hot water: Netflix has been forced to disable comments for the official trailer of the new Queen Cleopatra docu-series (Photo: Cleopatra, played by Adele James)
Adele James on horseback in the new Cleopatra Netflix series
Adele James (left) in African Queens: Queen Cleopatra
Adele James in another screenshot from the new Netflix docuseries
The Death of Cleopatra, circa 1645-55. Artist Guido Cagnacci
“It’s possible she was Egyptian,” says one expert, while another adds, “I remember my grandmother telling me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you at school, Cleopatra was black.’ ‘
The two-minute official trailer uploaded on April 12 has already been viewed more than 1.9 million times on YouTube.
Meanwhile, Netflix has been forced to disable comments on the official trailer after sparking controversy.
A Change.org petition to cancel the show has garnered more than 3,000 signatures. An earlier petition – which was removed – had more than 62,000 signatures.
Author Kemi Owonibi tweeted: “For the umpteenth time, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra was not an Egyptian.
‘She was Greek! Cleopatra VII was white – of Macedonian descent, as were all the rulers of Ptolemy, who lived in Egypt.’