Jada Pinkett Smith’s new installment of “African Queens” has come under fire from Egyptians outraged over the decision to cast a Black woman as Cleopatra.
On April 14, Netflix unveiled its first look at the docuseries’ new chapter, “Queen Cleopatra.” British actress Adele James, who is of mixed race, is shown as ancient Egyptian ruler as scholars examine her long-debated race and impact on the empire.
“I really wanted to represent Black women,” Pinkett Smith told Tudum, a companion site to Netflix boasting updates for projects hosted on the streamer. The first ruler examined in the four-part series was Ndongo and Matamba’s 17th-century Queen Nijnga. The Hollywood veteran serves as the project’s executive producer and narrator.
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them,” she said.
Pinkett Smith noted, “The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”
But, the depiction of Cleopatra as a Black woman has proven too much for those who believe Cleopatra’s lineage, which traces back to Greece, Ptolemaic, and West Asia, has been backwashed to falsely support Afrocentrism.
Related: 5 Characters and Historical Figures Whitewashed by Hollywood
Rage over “Queen Cleopatra” moved Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary to file a complaint demanding the country take legal action against everyone involved in “Queen Cleopatra” for its alleged erasure of history. Al-Semary also wants the platform banned in Egypt.
“Most of what Netflix platform displays do not conform to Islamic and societal values and principles, especially Egyptian ones… 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,” read the complaint, according to the Egypt Independent.
“Queen Cleopatra” director Tina Gharavi responded to the backlash in an exclusive for Variety on April 21. In part, Gharavi said the ongoing debate over Cleopatra depicted as a Black woman shows how deeply rooted misogynoir is.
She defended casting James, explaining the actress “could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did,” said the director.
The late actress Elizabeth Taylor famously portrayed the Egyptian pharaoh in the eponymous 1963 film. “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,” noted the BAFTA-nominated writer.
James has also addressed the onslaught of complaints. The “Casualty” star shared screenshots of two messages criticizing Black Cleopatra that read:
“You mf what do you think you are?? NOTING but some ni$$asa who believed their own lie and tryna black wash everything just to steal our history! that’s so pathetic..And Cleopatra?? Seriously?? She want even Egyptian she was Ptolemaic lol.”
“But Cleopatra was a queen and not a slave, so why is the actress black when she was originally a white Greek Cleopatra? Why are you stealing the identity and civilizations of other countries? I pity you.”
She hit back, writing, “Just FYI, this kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my account. You will be blocked without hesitation!!! If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours. Either way, I’M GASSED and will continue to be!”
A Change.org petition to cancel the dramatic series amassed more than 85,000 signatures before it was removed for “hate speech.” Another has since been created and has been met with support from more than 5,000 individuals.
The petitioner argues that Cleopatra “was NOT black” and that the movement is “in no way against black people, and is simply a wake up call to preserve the history and the integrity of the Egyptians and the Greeks.”
“The show is clearly done to complement the Afrocentric movement, which claims to be the owner of the ancient Egyptian civilization, and to consolidate what the movement promotes. Egypt was never black and it was never white, Egypt is just Egypt. There are many great African/black civilizations, but Egypt was/is NOT one of them. Sign the petition to stop the falsification of history!”
In December, floods of Egyptians orchestrated an online boycott against Kevin Hart before he was slated to perform a live comedy show in the country. Their anger stemmed from an alleged past joke where Hart said they were Black.
“Queen Cleopatra” begins streaming on May 10.