Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), a 160-year-old institution responsible for the country’s cultural heritage and all its archaeological sites has spoken out on the controversy over Netflix’s choice of actress cast to play Queen Cleopatra in what has been advertised as a documentary by the streaming platform. It also addressed accusations of racism against those who are critical of an African-American actress as the show producers’ pick for the Queen of the Nile.
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The institution issued a statement on Thursday regarding the portrayal of Cleopatra with “African features and dark skin”. Adele James, the actress cast in the role is of mixed heritage.
“The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities confirms that Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic [Greek] features,” the SCA wrote on the website of Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, of which the SCA is an agency.
The casting of James prompted a considerable backlash on the Internet. But most importantly, it caused a furore in Egypt, where calls have been made to ban Netflix from the country and 40,000 people have signed a petition to “Stop the Cleopatra Documentary on Netflix due to historical falsification”.
“The appearance of the heroine is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy, especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work, which requires those in charge of its production to investigate the accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified,” Mostafa Waziri, the SCA Secretary General, said in the statement.
Wazari added that statues and depictions on coins of the queen pointed to her having Cleopatra had Hellenistic features, and “fair skin, drawn nose and thin lips”, as evidenced by her depictions such as statues sculpted and coins minted in her lifetime, Wazari pointed out.
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“Bas-reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof,” the statement said, embellishing its text with illustrations showing Cleopatra with European traits.
Those critical of the casting choice have been charged with accusations of racism in discussions on social media. It seems that accusations of “white supremacist attitudes” must have also been leveled against Egyptians vocally protesting the falsification of their country’s history, as the statement also addressed the issue of the Egyptians’ supposed racist attitudes towards people of African origin.
“The rejection experienced by the film before it comes out is sparked out of defense of the history of Queen ‘Cleopatra VII’, which is an important and authentic part of the ancient history of Egypt, and far from any ethnic racism, with full respect for African civilizations and for our brothers in the African continent that brings us all together,” Wazari said.
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Netflix appears to be startled and bewildered by the backlash coming from Egypt.
The day before the statement from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the streaming service released its own statement.
In a statement posted on the Netflix website on Wednesday, the show’s focus is meant to be on Cleopatra as a powerful female ruler, rather than the color of her skin.
“Working with leading historians and experts including Shelley Haley (Professor of Classics and African Studies, Hamilton College) and Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton (Cleopatra scholar), we explore Cleopatra’s story as a queen, strategist, ruler of formidable intellect as well as a woman whose heritage is the subject of great debate,” they said.
“Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt,” the statement said.
Perhaps that will be what is finally revealed to the audience, but so far the controversy has surrounded what could be seen in the trailer, and there the point that Cleopatra was of sub-Saharan African origin appears to be a major selling point. And it appears that the ancestors of the modern Egyptians are depicted in such a fashion as well.
The statement from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, however, leaves no room for debate on the matter.
Anthropological and DNA studies conducted on mummies and other human remains leave no doubt regarding the fact that Egyptians of ancient times bore no resemblance to their southern neighbors, according to the statement.
As for Cleopatra herself being of mixed ethnicity, the statement refutes that possibility as well. The SCA cites the fact that the Ptolemaic dynasty adopted the ancient Egyptian custom of pharaohs marrying their sisters to keep the royal bloodline pure.
Ptolemy I, its founder, was married to Berenice I, and both were of Macedonian origin.