OPINION: The Cleopatra Controversy
The land of Egypt has been a source of mysticism and mystery for thousands of years, while also being a historical location marker for the Exodus of the enslaved Hebrews of the Bible. It has given us a wealth of fantasy due to much of its history and information lost to time, destroyed by thieves and vandals, or misinterpreted by rivals. You’d be hard-pressed to find Black Africans in places of prominence in Egypt, a majority Arab country that seems to hate everything African despite being located in Africa. That said, the way the rest of the world has been taught about Egypt is well-meaning parables at best, or an outright lie made up by mass-media at worst. Why am I talking about this? Because the Twittersphere has blown up about the latest Egyptian-themed movie called “Cleopatra”, with the Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role. Before we start talking about whether this is wrong or not, let’s look at the titular character discussed and debated: Cleopatra herself.
Cleopatra (full name: Cleopatra VII Philopator) was the last active ruler of Ancient Egypt, dying by suicide before the Roman invasion in 30 BCE. She was described by the scholars at the time (and repeated by many artists since) as the most beautiful woman of the period. Since many of these artists were European, they depicted Cleopatra as European — despite being an African. This image of Cleopatra has carried on through the ages, putting pale eyed and skinned women in the role, leading all the way up to the most common image made popular by the 1963 Cleopatra movie starring Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. This has made a lot of Black people, especially those during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, deeply offended with good reason.
Ever since Egyptology (the study of ancient Egypt) was taught after the great discoveries of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 20th Century, most school children in the Western world were taught that Egypt was in Africa and that African people were Black.
EGYPT is in AFRICA, and
AFRICA has BLACK PEOPLE, thus
EGYPTIANS are BLACK PEOPLE.
It was very simple mental math.
It went over well with a lot of Black people, who assumed that Cleopatra was an exception to White Supremacist rule: an African queen that not only was revered by the eminent power of Europe…but was also a Black woman. Unfortunately, the images did not lie when they showed Cleopatra as a White woman (as intended by their European creators), but it did not tell the whole story. As per the course for outlining world history from a Eurocentric perspective, miseducation can only advance European hegemony when faced with other cultures, and so we should work to undo them.
Let’s break this down:
(1) Ancient Egypt was ruled by Black African rulers for an extended period, but not always. In Cleopatra’s time, non-Black Egyptians were common, as were Egyptians with Greek ancestry known as “Egyptiotes”. The term is not new: Egyptiotes have existed since the Hellenistic period (~323 BCE) up to the 1952 Egyptian revolution when Arab nationalists finally gained control of the country and expelled many Egyptiotes.
(2) Cleopatra was an African, but not a black-skinned or brown-skinned African. She did not have any black- or brown-skinned African in her ancestral line. Several of her distant ancestors were brown non-Greeks: multi-great grandmother Cleopatra I Syra, Cleopatra I’s mother Laodice III of the Mithridatic Persian dynasty, and father Antiochuis III the Great was of Iranian descent. Beyond that, the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty (of which Cleopatra VII Philopator is a blood-descendant) never intermarried with the native Egyptians. This decision will factor in later.
(3) The Ptolemaic dynasty was descended from Ptolemy, a Macedonian (read: northern Greek) companion and historian to Alexander III the Great of Macedonia during his worldwide conquests. He was appointed satrap of Egypt after Alexander died, then declared himself full Pharaoh (calling himself Ptolemy I Soter; the “Soter” is a deific title that means “savior” in Greek, which would make Ptolemy a White savior) in 305 BC. Ptolemy considered himself above the Egyptians, and would only marry a fellow Greek. Later generations followed the ancient Egyptian practice of inbreeding, along with sibling marriage, to maintain this idea while providing legitimacy by keeping the royal bloodline “pure”. This led to a lot of genetic defects in the family line, with many members depicted as extremely obese. Swollen necks and bulging eyes were prominent in a lot of depictions of Ptolemaic rulers, including the wide-eyed Cleopatra.
Not only do the preceding points mark Cleopatra VII Philopator (aka Cleopatra) as an Egyptiot, but it also denotes she is several generations inbred (approximately 5 generations worth). Please understand this does not mean all Egyptiotes are inbred; just the Ptolemies were inbred for the purpose of this discussion. But why do we care about what Cleopatra looks like or whether she was inbred? It has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
For as long as I’ve been alive, the story ancient Egypt has been told without much input from Africans (except maybe White South Africans) or without Black African presence. Most times you’ll see a Black African as a servant or slave to White actors, portraying Egyptians both inside and outside of Ptolemaic rule. Too many movies focused on White actors donning brownface to play people from Egypt, and sometimes forgoing the brownface altogether. I understand this was a barrier the Westernized film industry chose not to cross because of White supremacist preferences, but its mistakes show brightly by limiting its film cast to White people and then coloring them with tanner or adding makeup or appliances —a practice now recognized as “whitewashing”.
While most people know the 1963 film Cleopatra as a major example of Cleopatra’s legendary beauty as depicted by Elizabeth Taylor’s idealized Eurocentric beauty, others like Theda Bara, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Claudette Colbert, Leonor Varela, Monica Bellucci, and Amy Stiller also got to play Cleopatra to varying degrees. The same can be said of other prominent female roles in African or Egyptian period pieces, like Pakistani actress Sybilla Deen, Afro-Cuban actress Gina Torres, New Zealander Josephine Davidson, multi-racial dancer Galyn Görg, Sri Lankan soprano Daniele de Niese, Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana, and Somalian supermodel Iman. The only actress of Egyptian descent to play Cleopatra was Amina Rizk in the 1943 film.
Please take note the list above is not exhaustive, and almost all of these women identify as White, Caucasian, or something other than African-descended (except Iman, Galyn Gorg, Amina Rizk, and Gina Torres) — this is important.
The reason why Black people care about Cleopatra’s skin color is because they were told about an African queen heralded as the most beautiful and most powerful, held up as an icon in the European imagination. In a White-supremacist world, that holds a certain kind of power: you may have most of us, but you couldn’t get us all. The miseducation we’ve all been fed over the years conveniently tells us Cleopatra was being invaded and would rather die than serve under Roman rule, while also telling us the idea Cleopatra had relations (and a child!) with a man whose people came to conquer hers and then committed suicide was an act of defiance — that she operated from a position of power. This might have made sense if she saved the Egyptians from invasion with her abilities and actions, but that didn’t happen.
Because of this misinformation, many women (not just Black women) of the 20th Century have sometimes found reason to dress up as Cleopatra — by name or costume — as a sign of defiance and pride against the male-dominated world. It takes a certain level of miseducation (and/or mental gymnastics) to declare yourself a queen and then name yourself after a multi-layer burrito of bad genes to produce what would become the Roman Empire at the expense of her Egyptian subjects.
Back to the color issue: being marked as the most beautiful queen in Antiquity is prime real estate, because the most beautiful woman in Antiquity would be Helen of Troy —and despite being a princess of Sparta, she held no agency during the Trojan War as a war trophy for men like Paris, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. Helen felt the same way: it seems in any age most women want to be more than a trophy to be won. Since European society made their queens out to be less than their male rulers in the telling, and made the idea of warrior-queens like Boudicca and legendary Amazon queen Hippolyta unpopular by dint of gender norms…why not the exotic fantasy lands where their men hold no sway over White womanhood?
It is this same “innocent” invasion cloaked in a quest for “freedom” that leads many people to believe Hollywood has encroached on African history yet again without the input of Africa’s children — black and brown Africans. It’s why here are pictures of Gal Gadot in an altered version of Nefertiti’s crown side-by-side with Rihanna in the same outfit (one similar to that worn by the actress in 2017’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”). It is unknown if Cleopatra wore a similar headdress.
The same people complaining about this Cleopatra movie were able to take down 2016’s “Gods of Egypt” (made by Egyptiot Alex Proyas) by not seeing it. By their actions, FOX’s 2013 show “Hieroglyph” died before seeing the light of day as people swore off the show, tanking ratings and financial predictions. But where were these people during the release of 2014’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”? and Spike TV’s “Tut” miniseries? In the case of “Exodus”, Were these people more concerned about speaking out on a Bible movie’s “inaccurate” depiction of Egyptians when almost all the White actors with speaking roles portrayed people of color? In the case of “Tut”, was it that nobody watched it (but me) and nobody cared (but me, because of Nonzo Anozie and Kylie Bunbury)? I would never have seen “Tut” and that Ridley Scott whitewashing-fest would never have made so much money if people simply did not entertain them by partaking in the entertainment.
If you take nothing else away from this article, know this: if you don’t like the idea of an Israeli wearing an Egyptian crown, you don’t have to see the movie. VOTE WITH YOUR WALLETS AND YOUR FEET, and the studios will get the message…perhaps actually hire an appropriate cast for the roles as written. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck complaining about the Western world changing history again through its movie studios without input from history’s descendants forever.