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The Controversy Behind Netflix’s ’Queen Cleopatra’ Documentary

By Amy Saad



Unless you have been living under a rock, you would have recently heard of the recent media eruption surrounding Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’. Before you reach for your popcorn to watch this latest four-part docudrama, take a moment to understand both perspectives of the debate – is the casting an amicable appreciation of culture or a racialized cultural appropriation of Egyptian heritage? Purveyors of each side mount convincing arguments and this article will assist you in detangling their perspectives.

Released on May 10, the ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Documentary already holds the worst audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes in TV show history in a Forbes report! Why is this the case? Cleopatra ruled over two thousand years ago as the final Pharaoh of Egypt and is an intriguing personality. Her life story remains rather enigmatic—whether she was completely a temptress, or a skilful mastermind is a question unanswered by historians even today. The root controversy surrounding this documentary is grounded on the fundamental question: how much can historical depictions be altered before completely distorting the true essence of historical figures and history?

Even though there appears to be positive intent, many argue that the representation of Egyptian culture was offensive in ‘blackwashing’ and importing an inaccurate Egyptian narrative. It is known to historians that Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty and was of white Macedonian-Greek ethnicity. What sparked criticism was the inclusion of Black actress, Adele James, who was cast to play the main role, Cleopatra. Critics have claimed that this casting presents a historically inaccurate picture of what Cleopatra would have looked like and have therefore labelled it as “appropriation” or an astute example of Afrocentrism. This controversy has also led to Netflix turning off the comment section on their YouTube trailer which became home to racial abuse and hostility as well as the creation of a petition on Change.org with 85,000 people agreeing this documentary was “falsifying history”. The Egyptian secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr Mostafa Waziri further agreed that Cleopatra’s appearance was a deliberate “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy”.

In diametric opposition to this online hate campaign, the other side contends that the casting was ground-breaking in diverting whitewashing attempts in the film industry to create a re-imagined Cleopatra. Director Tina Gharavi buttresses a more inclusive and diverse image of history. She argued in an interview with Variety Magazine that “we need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.” It is important to remember that current ideas of race and identity in contemporary society differ from the racial boundaries of the ancient world. The gravamen may not lie in the black casting of Cleopatra but rather the subsequent treatment by modern society to impose Eurocentric whiteness upon Cleopatra’s character under the façade of blackwashing.


Regardless of what side, the debate remains thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating. It is essential to recognise that beyond this controversy, the docudrama revitalises the awe-inspiring tale of Cleopatra, a figure whose accomplishments deserve celebration. Her remarkable intelligence in forging strategic alliances with influential Roman generals is a testament to her prowess, while her defiance of gender stereotypes challenges the pervasive docility imposed on women, an issue still prevalent in contemporary society. Ultimately, Cleopatra's story serves as a potent reminder of the indomitable spirit and resilience that transcends time, making her a figure of great historical significance.











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