The director of the Netflix‘s upcoming docudrama Queen Cleopatra has addressed the backlash over casting a Black actress in the lead role.
Casualty star Adele James was announced as the lead of the series in April, but criticism soon followed in Egypt, with many accusing the docudrama of “blackwashing” the country’s history. One lawyer even filed lawsuit against Netflix, claiming the series had contradicted and distorted Egyptian history in favour of promoting Afrocentrism.
However, in a new piece for Variety, director Tina Gharayi hit back at critics, arguing “it’s more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor,” who famously portrayed the historical figure in 1963’s Cleopatra.
“For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right,” wrote Gharayi.
“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.”
She continued: “After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”
She added: “Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am okay with this.
“So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”
Back in 2020, it was announced that Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot would portray Cleopatra in a new biopic directed by Patty Jenkins. The news similarly resulted in a backlash, with Gadot later shooting down suggestions of “whitewashing”.