Netflix’s Documentary “Queen Cleopatra” Missed The Perfect Opportunity To Tell Her Incredible Story How It Really Happened

Netflix’s recent documentary, “Queen Cleopatra,” has stirred up controversy, and much of it surrounds the historical accuracy of the iconic queen’s heritage.

By Meghan Dillon5 min read
Screen Shot 2023-05-19 at 2.50.40 PM
Netflix/Queen Cleopatra

Produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith (who has an infamous affinity for twisting the truth to fit her own narrative), Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra documentary trailer was released in mid-April, and depicts the iconic queen as a black woman played by British actress Adele James. Why is this controversial? Because historical evidence indicates that Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek descent, not Egyptian or African. Though Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt (also known as a pharaoh), she came from a Macedonian Greek family known as the Ptolemys, who was descended from one of Alexander the Great’s most trusted generals.

Queen Cleopatra would probably still receive some criticism if it were a historical fiction, but what’s troublesome is that this takes place in a documentary. The documentary is part of a series called African Queens, which is meant to highlight important African queens in history. This is a great idea for a documentary series because African queens, like Queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba, are often overlooked in history; however, this doesn’t erase the fact that Cleopatra wasn’t black

Egyptian Criticism of the Documentary

While many have criticized the trailer, some of the most notable criticisms come from Egyptologists and Egyptian people, who believe that the documentary is erasing their country’s history. Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass wrote, “Cleopatra, then, was many things, and well deserving of having her story told to modern audiences, but one thing she most definitely was not was black.” He also claimed that it was a shame that Cleopatra’s story was being politicized, for he believes that her life story is fascinating and deserves to be depicted as factually correct as possible.

Another vocal critic is Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary, who filed a lawsuit against Netflix for distorting Egyptian history. In part, he wrote, “In order to preserve the Egyptian national and cultural identity among Egyptians all over the world there must be pride in the makings of such work.” He even goes as far as accusing Netflix of committing a “crime” against Egyptian history and culture.

Despite criticisms, director Tina Gharavi, who is of Persian descent, stands by her decision to cast a black woman as Cleopatra. In an op-ed for Variety, she wrote about why she decided to portray Cleopatra as a black woman. She wrote, “The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family – the Ptolemaic lineage – intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely. After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.”

What Gharvi fails to acknowledge is that the Ptolemys were infamous for inbreeding, often resorting to forcing siblings to marry and reproduce to keep their bloodline and throne “pure.” This makes the idea that Cleopatra was anything other than descended directly from the Ptolemys nearly impossible. 

Despite this historical fact, Gharavi still felt that it was important to portray Cleopatra as black for political reasons. She continued, “Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress. For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before – historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her – meant we had to get it even more right.”

Ptolemaic Kingdom. Cleopatra VII. 51-30 BC. AE 40 drachms. Alexandria. On the right, diademed bust of Cleopatra VII. On the left, eagle standing on thunderbolt. Otto Nickl/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Ptolemaic Kingdom. Cleopatra VII. 51-30 BC. AE 40 drachms. Alexandria. On the right, diademed bust of Cleopatra VII. On the left, eagle standing on thunderbolt. Otto Nickl/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef went on Piers Morgan Uncensored to discuss this story, and brought up that many Egyptians feel that Hollywood doesn’t respect their history or culture. He said, “This is not a work of fiction. This is a documentary, there’s a huge difference. This isn’t The Little Mermaid, which is a fictional character that anybody could play. Cleopatra came from Macedonian Greek origin, and it’s not about skin color. We don’t care if they are black or white, it’s about how Hollywood is so culturally sensitive about all kinds of minorities, but when it comes to my people, we seem to be erased.”

He continued, “It’s not about black and white. It’s about this idea of Hollywood always stealing the culture of my own people.” Gharavi seems to respond to this idea of Egyptians feeling insulted in her Variety piece. She wrote, “Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.” 

The truth is that Egypt is a diverse country with a diverse history, so shouldn’t they have a say in how their history is told? Hollywood bends over backward to be culturally sensitive, but the line seems to be drawn when it comes to telling Egyptian history. For an industry that prides itself on being progressive, this sounds incredibly regressive.

Gharavi openly admits to changing facts (in a documentary) for political reasons, completely defeating the purpose of creating a documentary to tell the story of Cleopatra’s life. It’s truly a shame because Cleopatra’s story is not only historically significant but also incredibly fascinating.

Who Was Cleopatra?

The unfortunate truth is that primary sources on Cleopatra were largely written by her enemies (mainly the Romans), but historical scholarship has made it possible to separate myth from truth. Though we can’t put together a fully-detailed biography, there are enough details to prove that she was a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life. Since it would take at least a hundred pages to tell the full story, here are the highlights of her extraordinary life.

Born Cleopatra VII in 69 BC in Alexandria, she was one of the daughters of King Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VI. Very little is known about her early years, but it’s widely believed that she took her education seriously as a child and spoke several languages, becoming the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language. After her father died in 51 BC, 18-year-old Cleopatra married her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, and the two became co-pharaohs.

By the time she became Queen of Egypt, she was an incredibly intelligent woman and believed she was the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. In 49 BC, Ptolemy had Cleopatra exiled to Syria, but his meeting with Roman dictator Julius Caesar was the perfect time for Cleopatra to find her way back to the throne. Before Ptolemy had a chance to meet with Caesar, Cleopatra found a way to sneak into his quarters to convince him to join her side, and many believe she did so by sneaking herself into the palace rolled in a rug or inside a burlap sack. The rug scene was famously depicted in the 1963 film, Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor playing the iconic queen. Historians believe that she persuaded (and possibly seduced) Caesar with her magnetic personality and her intelligence.

Cleopatra and Caesar became lovers, leading to the birth of their son, Caesarion. After Cleopatra was restored to the throne, Ptolemy made a truce before he mysteriously drowned in 47 BC, making Cleopatra the ruler of Egypt alongside her infant son. She is believed to have ordered his death, as well as the death of her other brother and second husband, Ptolemy XIV, in 44 BC, in addition to her sister, Arsinoe, in 41 BC.

After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, famed generals Mark Antony and Octavian fought over power in Rome. Antony made the strategic decision to align himself with Cleopatra, leading to the two meeting and eventually becoming lovers. Antony later became Cleopatra’s third husband and fathered her three youngest children. Despite meeting under political circumstances and helping advance each other’s careers, it’s widely believed that Antony and Cleopatra were in love.

Egypt thrived under Cleopatra’s rule, but the beginning of the end was when Octavian declared war on Antony in 32 AD. After several battles, defeat became inevitable, and both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 AD. She was 39, and he was 53. This led to the Roman conquest of Egypt, making Cleopatra the last monarch of Egypt. Octavian went on to celebrate the conquest of Egypt and later became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

Why Is Cleopatra So Significant? 

It’s clear that Cleopatra had an eventful life, but what made her a pop culture icon was the artistic depictions of her life throughout the centuries. Though you can find plenty of paintings and sculptures of her through the centuries, her most famous artistic portrayal comes from Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, which was written around 1606. While it isn’t as popular as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or Macbeth, it’s still one of Shakespeare's most famous plays and helped cement her status as a pop culture icon. 

After Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, there was a rise in works of art depicting her story, mainly in the form of paintings. While we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that Shakespeare’s play helped stir up a wider cultural interest in Cleopatra, keeping her and her story present in the zeitgeist.

The Death of Cleopatra, by Guido Cagnacci, circa 1645. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
The Death of Cleopatra, by Guido Cagnacci, circa 1645. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

With the creation of the film industry, it only made sense for her life to be made into an epic. There are many movies about her life, but the most famous is the 1963 version starring Elizabeth Taylor. 

While Shakespeare’s play and the movies about her life often paint her as a temptress, they still portray her as an intelligent and strategic politician. The fact that she was such an intelligent and accomplished woman in the ancient world is not only what makes her so fascinating but why she’s still remembered to this day. She’s proof that women are uniquely powerful in their own right, shattering the narrative that women are inferior to men. The fact that we’re still discussing her story over 2,000 years after her death shows how remarkable she was, which makes it a shame that this docuseries had to change her heritage to fit an American political narrative.

The Wrong Outweighed the Right

Despite the criticisms of the documentary, I thought it would only be fair if I gave it a chance and watched it. The documentary does a decent job at recognizing that Cleopatra was a complex, politically savvy, and intelligent woman, but it’s impossible to ignore the historical inaccuracies in the cast. In the end, the controversy surrounding the casting of Cleopatra overshadows her incredible story. You see and hear the actors and actresses far more often than the historical experts (instead of the steady balance that you see in most historical documentaries), making it clear that the creators wanted to have the best of both worlds in the genre of historical drama.  

The truth is I likely would have enjoyed it if it had been a historical drama (similarly to how I enjoyed The Tudors) because the acting was over-the-top, but it wasn’t a historical drama, it was a documentary. Netflix missed out on an opportunity to tell her incredible story in a factual light. 

Closing Thoughts

Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra documentary has angered Egyptologists and the people of Egypt for its inaccurate portrayal of the legendary queen, and it’s understandable to see why. What’s truly sad is that Netflix missed out on a chance to make a high-production documentary to tell Cleopatra’s life story but decided to rewrite history instead.

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