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Why it Matters if a Black Actress Plays Cleopatra

Why it Matters if a Black Actress Plays Cleopatra
The truth is not served when filmmakers “boldly re-imagine” the past to spread the lies of today.
By Mark Tapson

Imagine, if you will, that Netflix produced a miniseries based on the life of the 19th century Zulu warrior-king Shaka Zulu, and cast white actor Matt Damon in the lead role. Or what if the woke streaming giant made a movie based on Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her seat on the bus – a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement – and hired blonde actress Charlize Theron to play Parks? How about if Netflix aired a bio-pic of black abolitionist, orator, and statesman Frederick Douglass (a great idea, by the way; let’s talk, Netflix) and gave Hugh Jackman the part?

Imagine the apoplexy from the hypersensitive culture scolds, the cultural appropriation police, of the Left. “You can’t cast Matt Damon as Shaka Zulu!” they would scream. “Shaka Zulu was black!” “Charlize Theron as Rosa Parks?! Are you insane, Netflix?!” “Jackman as Douglass?! Talk about white privilege!”

And they would be absolutely correct to condemn these inexplicable casting choices. Why? Because as capable and world-famous as Damon, Theron, and Jackman might be, they are white and would be historically inaccurate and therefore jarringly inappropriate playing famous black figures. Similarly, it would be laughable to cast Hugh Jackman as, say, Joan of Arc – because she was a real-life historical figure who was inarguably not a middle-aged man (despite contemporary efforts to erase her femaleness and depict her as “nonbinary”).

But put a black actress in the role of a white historical figure, such as Henry VIII discard Anne Boleyn, and suddenly the casting is “daring” and “imaginative,” and every progressive media outlet in the known universe will defend it on social justice grounds. And if you speak up to note that the real Anne Boleyn was undeniably white, and therefore casting a black actress would make the project distractingly nonfactual, then you are smeared as upholding white supremacist culture.

The aforementioned hypothetical situations stem from the current controversy over the casting of black actress Adele James in the titular role of a forthcoming Netflix miniseries, an historical drama titled Queen Cleopatra. The four-part series which will begin streaming on May 10 was executive produced by disgraced Hollywood star Will Smith’s wife, open-marriage enthusiast Jada Pinkett Smith.

Scholarly debates and investigations into the heritage of Cleopatra VII are legion, but the consensus is that the Queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC was of Macedonian descent, with the prominent aquiline nose common among the Romans and Greeks, and may have had an olive skin tone. No serious scholar argues that she was a black African.

“It’s possible she was an Egyptian,” one “expert” tentatively states in the trailer for the show. Another says, “I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black,’” suggesting that the historical record has been falsified intentionally by a white supremacist educational system to erase the truth about Cleopatra’s blackness.

The casting of James, whose hairstyle in the trailer is more reminiscent of blaxploitation icon Cleopatra Jones than of ancient artistic representations of the Queen of Egypt, has sparked such backlash that Netflix decided to turn off comments on social media sites such as YouTube. A Change.org petition demanding that the show be scrapped amassed over 85,000 signatures before the page was removed.

Warner Todd Huston at Breitbart News cites historian and author Kemi Owonibi as asserting, “For the nth time, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was not an Egyptian. She was Greek! Cleopatra VII was white—of Macedonian descent, likewise all the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt.”

Speaking of Egypt, its people are none-too-thrilled about Netflix playing fast and loose with the casting of their iconic queen. Celebrated Egyptian actress Somaya Elkhashab blasted it on Twitter: “Identifying Queen Cleopatra as black for fulfilling modern African American fantasies is pure theft of egyptian history and yet an attempt to rewrite history’s greats. Blackwashing a greek queen proves the obsession with white women and this wouldn’t help stopping racism at all.”

The Daily Mail reports that Egypt’s former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass dismissed the Netflix take on Cleopatra as “completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black.” He added that the only rulers of Egypt known to have been black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC), and complained, “Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black.”

An Egyptian lawyer, Mahmoud al-Semary, has even filed a lawsuit with the intention of having Queen Cleopatra banned in Egypt for distorting his country’s history in favor of promoting Afrocentrism. He added that “in order to preserve the Egyptian national and cultural identity among Egyptians all over the world, there must be pride in the makings of such work.”

The actress James herself told the BBC, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!”

And yet the Queen Cleopatra filmmakers felt compelled to “blackwash” an Egyptian queen of Greek heritage. Director Tina Gharavi decided on James as the actress who would “bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.” She later defended her choice in an essay for Variety, revealingly calling the casting a “political act.” Blaming criticism on the woke term “misogynoir” — bigotry against black women – she asked, “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?”

Her veiled accusation, of course, is that “some people” are racist. But the controversy arose not because “some people” need for Cleopatra to be portrayed as white, but that some other people need for an historical figure who was almost certainly Greek, and “possibly” Egyptian, to be a black African.

In response to anger from Egyptians themselves, Gharavi claimed it’s because “I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans.” Maybe they don’t appreciate her disrespecting their heritage and trying to appropriate them into sub-Saharan Africa.

A number of times in her essay Gharavi mentions the casting of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Hollywood’s 60-year-old epic, using that as the baseline of her defense of casting a black actress. “What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele [James] than Elizabeth Taylor ever did,” she sniffs. “So, was Cleopatra Black [sic]? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor,” Gharavi added later. She goes on to declare condescendingly that “[w]e 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.”

This is manipulative hogwash. Nobody “fears” the “complexity” of the depiction of historical figures, whatever that means; audiences simply have the right to expect some broad conformity to truth in a project that purports to be a docu-drama. What the Queen Cleopatra filmmakers themselves fear is the complexity of historical truth, because that undermines propaganda. And the insistence that Cleopatra is a black African queen is identity politics propaganda.

Conservative commentator Dennis Prager has often noted that truth is not a left-wing value. That’s because the Left will always jettison the inconvenient truth in favor of narratives that promote revolutionary messaging; hence, the director Gharavi’s statement that “we need to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than it is about who we are.” [emphasis added]

And that’s the real problem with casting actors in an historical drama based on a contemporary ideological goal: you’re not letting history speak for itself and allowing your audience to learn from it; instead of centering your project on the truth, you are appropriating what you want from history and conforming it to your worldview in order to push propaganda. The story suffers, our understanding and appreciation of history suffer, and flesh-and-blood historical movers and shakers are reduced to cardboard vehicles for the promotion of a political agenda.

History is not served, truth is not served, and no one in the audience is served when filmmakers “boldly re-imagine” the past to spread the lies of today.

Originally published at Culture Warrior.

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