Netflix has once again found itself in hot water, thanks to the recent controversy surrounding Jada Pinkett Smith’s upcoming historical docu-drama about one of the most famous historical persons in Egypt’s history, Cleopatra.
For context, on April 12th, 2023 Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming historical docu-drama, Queen Cleopatra. Without trying to state the obvious, the series is centered around the life and reign of Queen Cleopatra, one of Egypt’s most romanticized and famous monarchs. However, the series has found itself at the center of controversy, due to the show’s depiction of Queen Cleopatra as being black. This has upset many people online, which has led to many accusing Netflix of “blackwashing” a historical icon.
Why is this controversial?
According to common historical records, Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek heritage.
Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, which had been ruled by her ancestors for nearly three centuries when the Macedonian Greek general and Alexander the Great’s companion Ptolemy I Soter founded the Kingdom in 305 bc.
It reportedly took a century into the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but it became infamous for sibling marriages and inbreeding, which was also common in previous Egyptian dynasties. According to historical records, nearly all marriages outside of marrying siblings or cousins were with Greek and Persian royalty.
When you factor in the many generations of inbreeding that came before Cleopatra’s birth, the likelihood of her being what we would define in the modern day as “black” is extremely slim.
The Online Response
The online criticism of the docu-drama has been overwhelming.
Much of the ire has been directed at Netflix, as many have accused the platform of not accurately portraying history. Within a matter of hours, a petition was raised on Change.Org accusing Netflix of falsifying history. it was signed by 85,000 from around the world before it was pulled from the platform.
Some of the most vocal against the series are of Greek and Egyptian heritage with many wishing to “preserve” the history of Cleopatra. As one of the most famous historical figures of both cultures, the argument is being made that Cleopatra should be portrayed “accurately” as a way of respecting their culture and heritage.
However, there have also been some extremely negative viewpoints being raised that go beyond questioning historical accuracy in a television show and land directly in the racist category.
This isn’t the first time Netflix has been accused of historical inaccuracies, we saw controversy in the Vikings Valhalla series, and the debate around the ethnicity of King Yaroslav the Wise. And, we also saw a similar debate surrounding blackwashing in the movie The Woman King.
Why is the debate a minefield?
From a historical standpoint, it’s easy to see why there are many in favor of completely historically accurate depictions of historical figures, or of a specific time period. While it is also easy to understand that from an entertainment point of view, that’s what’s best for a historical depiction may not actually be the most entertaining option for an audience. However, lines are blurred when race and ethnicity are part of the equation. Contradicting yourself and coming across as a hypocrite, or worse a bigot, can be very easy while debating these topics.
What are your thoughts on the Queen Cleopatra series? Let us know in the comments below!