Netflix's newly released documentary series, "Queen Cleopatra," has ignited a whirlwind of controversy since its debut on the streaming platform. The four-part series delves deep into the captivating life and reign of the Egyptian ruler, immersing viewers in the era spanning from 51 to 30 BC.
Cleopatra, the final Pharaoh of Egypt, ascended to power following the reign of her father, Ptolemy XII. Her eventual demise marked a turning point as Egypt assimilated into the vast Roman Empire. Curiously, the enigmatic identity of Cleopatra's mother remains an unsolved mystery. "Queen Cleopatra" serves as the second installment of Jada Pinkett Smith's remarkable "African Queens" series, with Pinkett Smith lending her captivating voice as the narrator once again. The first season mesmerized audiences with the awe-inspiring story of Queen Njinga, a formidable warrior-queen who commanded Ndongo and Matamba, realms now known as Angola.
The elusive question of Cleopatra's ethnicity has ignited passionate debates among scholars and historians. While some argue for her Black heritage, there is no solid evidence to substantiate such claims. Instead, the historical records point to her Macedonian-Greek lineage.
Duana W Roller, the author of Cleopatra: A Biography, reveals that Cleopatra emerged from a dynasty established by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian-Greek who shared a close bond with Alexander the Great. Cleopatra, eight generations removed from Ptolemy, can be traced back to the Macedonian-Greek roots of the ruling Ptolemies.
The ambiguity surrounding Cleopatra's ethnicity stems from the lack of information about her female ancestors, particularly her mother, and grandmother. While Cleopatra's grandfather had two Macedonian-Greek wives, it is speculated that he might have had a concubine of Egyptian descent. Similar mixed relationships can be found in Cleopatra's father's lineage. Nevertheless, the identities of her mother and grandmother remain elusive.
It is plausible that Cleopatra had some Egyptian heritage, although the exact proportion remains uncertain. Roller suggests that her ancestry was likely a mixture, with Macedonian-Greek roots predominating. However, it is important to note that Cleopatra did not possess any Black African lineage.
Artistic depictions and accounts from Roman historians portray Cleopatra with Hellenic features, further supporting the notion of her Macedonian-Greek background. The discourse surrounding Cleopatra's ethnicity transcends historical exploration and delves into contemporary issues of race and identity. The concepts of "Black" and "White" as we understand them today have been shaped by European colonialism. Therefore, the question of Cleopatra's race is more intertwined with our own present-day anxieties and political dynamics than with the historical truth of Cleopatra and her era.
The Afrocentrist perspective, for instance, argues that ancient Egypt was a Black nation from which the ancient Greeks appropriated their ideas. In this view, Cleopatra is celebrated as a Black queen. Such a viewpoint challenges the traditional Eurocentric narrative of history and aligns with a political agenda seeking to address ongoing issues of racism.
However, even portrayals of Cleopatra as White, like Elizabeth Taylor's iconic portrayal in the 1963 film "Cleopatra," are also steeped in a specific political context. Kenan Malik, a historian focusing on race, argues that projecting Cleopatra as White also draws upon racial fables and mythologies. Hence, the recent casting of Adele James, a Black actress, as Cleopatra can be viewed as equally authentic and valid.
Criticism of the casting choice by Egyptians who feel it distorts historical facts also exposes underlying political motives. Some Egyptians object to the film due to concerns about preserving a unique national identity and opposing Afrocentrism, which they perceive as a racially biased movement.
It is crucial to recognize that any modern depiction of Cleopatra, regardless of the actor's skin color, inevitably carries the political baggage of the present. Cleopatra has become a symbol through which contemporary issues of race, identity, and politics are projected. As we continue to explore and reinterpret history, it is essential to approach these discussions with a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics at play and the diverse perspectives involved.