Netflix’s ‘Cleopatra’ Stirs Debate Over Racism and Representation

Netflix’s ‘Cleopatra’ Stirs Debate Over Racism and Representation
An Egyptian man paints a mural of Cleopatra during a protest in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 2, 2011 (AP photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill).

A controversy over an upcoming Netflix docudrama about Cleopatra escalated last week, when the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities published a statement on Facebook asserting that the pharaonic queen was fair-skinned and Hellenic. The statement capped—and was presumably a response to—two weeks of popular debate about the queen’s ethnicity, after Netflix cast a mixed-race British actress in the leading role for “Queen Cleopatra.”

The debate must be considered in the context of two important sensitivities pertaining to cultural politics in Egypt, the wider MENA region and the West: contentious race relations and the prevalence of problematic representations of the MENA region in Western popular culture.

Although Netflix claimed that the docudrama does not focus on Cleopatra’s ethnicity, it is part of a broader series called “Black Queens.” And in explaining the motivation behind the series, Jada Pinkett-Smith—its producer—remarked, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about black queens.” Egyptians across a wide spectrum of society, from artists to lawyers to government officials, took issue with this characterization of Cleopatra, arguing that she was Hellenic.

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