Unmasking Cleopatra: Netflix's Bold Documentary Stirs Controversy
Updated: Jun 30
Debates have raged over the ethnicity of Egypt's most famous queen
By Nour Elshenawy
Image credit: IMDB
In the realm of historic documentaries, few figures captivate the collective imagination as much as Cleopatra, the enigmatic queen of Egypt. With her iconic beauty, political cunning, and legendary romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra has long been a subject of fascination and speculation.
Netflix, the streaming giant known for its diverse and compelling content, recently announced its ambitious documentary project delving into the life and legacy of Cleopatra. However, what was intended as an exploration of history has ignited a fierce controversy, as critics and scholars clash over the documentary's alleged distortions and reinterpretations.
As the debates rage on, the line between historical accuracy and artistic license becomes increasingly blurred leaving audiences eager to uncover the real truth behind Cleopatra's captivating story.
One of the primary criticism leveled against the documentary is its alleged departure from established historical accounts. Traditional narratives depict Cleopatra as a shrewd and resourceful leader, skilled in diplomacy and renowned for her intellect. However, early teasers and promotional material for "Queen Cleopatra" have hinted at a more sensationalized portrayal, emphasizing her romantic escapades and allure rather than her political prowess. This departure from historical record has sparked concerns among experts who argue that such artistic liberties risk distorting the true legacy of Cleopatra.
The highly anticipated documentary has found itself at the center of a brewing storm especially in the Arab world. People from various backgrounds have expressed their anger, and outrage over what they perceive as cultural appropriation, Arabs, Egyptians in particular have voiced their discontent, feeling that their cultural heritage and history are being misrepresented and exploited for commercial gain.
Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist and journalist, strongly criticized Netflix's "Queen Cleopatra," accusing it of distorting historical facts. He expressed his dissatisfaction after the release of a special trailer for the documentary series, which centers around Cleopatra, the final ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.
Youssef said in a post on Facebook, alongside an attached clip from his interview with Piers Morgan: "My interview with Piers Morgan on the Cleopatra movie on Netflix. I took the opportunity to talk about the deliberate falsification of history by people like Kevin Hart, the Afrocentric movement, or by people like Steven Spielberg who claim the Jews built the pyramids. I talked about how woman like Gal Gadot, who supports the Israeli government, played the role of Cleopatra, which is a much greater insult than the color of an actress' skin. I also spoke about about all of this with respect to the Great African Civilization in West Africa. In the end, we are all siblings from the same continent, but the falsification to the historic Egyptian history is a big problem."
Many other Egyptians like Bassem Youssef expressed their dissatisfaction with the films portrayal, arguing that it was appropriating their cultural heritage and distorting their cultural narrative, mainly due to the casting of a Black actress in the role of Cleopatra.
Zahi Hawwas, a renowned Egyptologist and former minister of antiquates, conveyed his thoughts to the Al-Masry-Al-Youm newspaper stating, "This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, and not black."
According to Mr. Hawwas, the sole Egyptian rulers recognized as being of black descent were the Kushite kings from the 25th dynasty. He states "Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black."
Additionally, an Egyptian lawyer, Mahmoud El-Semary, submitted a formal complaint to the public prosecutor, urging them to take appropriate legal action and prevent people in Egypt from accessing Netflix streaming services. He claimed that the series contained visuals and content that violated media regulations in Egypt, and accused Netflix of attempting to propagate Afrocentric ideologies, including slogans and writings that aimed to distort and erase the Egyptian cultural identity.
Several Egyptologists also joined the group opposing the series and accused Netflix of endorsing narratives promoting Afrocentric movements. The movements argue that Egypt was a predominantly black nation and that the origins of Egyptian civilization were rooted in black culture.
However, in contrast to well-established historical evidence, the Egyptian population vehemently denies these assertations and views them as nothing more than a recent endeavor to appropriate Egyptian history and ascribe it to other civilizations.
Embracing Cleopatra's Greek lineage, the Netflix series has inadvertently sparked profound consternation among numerous Greek individuals. A commenter on the series' YouTube trailer stated: "Cleopatra was so Greek, and so separated from what we know as Egyptian, that her being able to speak Egyptian along with Greek was a marvel. The true story of Cleopatra, and her place in history is so much more fascinating than the false depiction of reality being shown in this trailer."
Earlier this February, comedian Kevin Harts show was cancelled in Cairo. The reason behind this cancellation was a social media campaign called "Kevin Hart is not welcome in Egypt," initiated by activists. They objected to Hart's involvement in the Pan-African movement, which argues that the Pharaohs should be recognized as Africans rather than Egyptians. According to this movement, the Pharaonic civilization has ethnic and historical ties to the people of South Africa.
The initial campaign began when the famous media figure faced allegations of claiming that Ancient Egyptians were of African descent during a stand up comedy performance. As of the time this report was written, neither Hart nor his team have made any public statements regarding this issue. This is not the comedians first encounter with fans who do not appreciate his jokes.
Additionally, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, a respected scholar from Senegal countered attempts to perpetuate the erasure of Egypt's rich history of people with dark skin in the 1980s. He did so by highlighting that preserved mummified remains provided evidence through their hair, physical characteristics, the presence of melanin in their skin samples, and various other factors, all of which confirmed their genetic heritage as black. The response to Hart's supposed comparison and the ongoing discussions about Egypt's ancestry have resulted in divided opinions.
An article by British Vogue article titled "Lets just call the outrage behind Queen Cleopatra what it is: Racism," argues that, although it is understandable to have concerns about historical accuracy and erasure, especially when portraying complex stories like Cleopatra's, using the term "Afrocentric thinking" in this context has negative consequences.
Firstly, it has empowered white supremacists who have emerged from the depths of the internet to unleash hate and racial slurs towards the cast and the creators of the show, similar to what happened when Halle Bailey was announced as the lead in The Little Mermaid and when Shonda Rhimes depicted black individuals in regal positions in Bridgerton.
In conclusion, it is evident that the show has generated significant global discontent, as it is perceived as a blow to Egyptian culture and history. Cleopatra, revered by numerous young women, especially those of Egyptian origin, being depicted as something other than an Egyptian, has been an unsettling notion to many.
Consequently, a multitude of Egyptians have voiced their opposition and called for a boycott of Netflix. In addition to an Egyptian television network, owned by the government who have announced their own high budget production focused on Cleopatra.
"Egyptians complain over Netflix depiction of Cleopatra as black," BBC 2023: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-65322821
"Why some Egyptians are fuming over Netflix's Black Cleopatra," CBS news 2023: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/netflix-cleopatra-black-egypt-controversy-ancient-queen/
"New Netflix documentary forgets Cleopatra was Greek," Greek Reporter 2023: https://greekreporter.com/2023/04/14/netflix-documentary-cleopatra-greek/
Bassem Youssef interview with Piers Morgan:
"Netflix's Queen Cleopatra provokes outrage for deliberately falsifying history," Vogue Arabia 2023: https://en.vogue.me/culture/netflix-cleopatra-show-provokes-outrage-falsification-egyptian-history/
"Kevin Harts show called off in Egypt following Afrocentric views controversy," Egypt Independent 2023:
"Kevin Hart criticized for allegedly saying Egyptians were black, critics launch online movement to shut down his upcoming show in Cairo," Atlanta Black Star 2022
"Lets just call the outrage around Queen Cleopatra what it is: Racism," British Vogue 2023
"Netflix's Black Cleopatra prompts Egyptian broadcaster to make its own series with light-skinned star," NBC news 2023: