QUEEN CLEOPATRA. White, but still black, or Netflix’s new history. Reflections on the documentary
If Queen Cleopatra is supposed to be a political manifesto, let’s not call it a documentary, but a fictionalized fantasy work based on some historical facts, and problem solved. Black Cleopatra can still be black, and now she is still white, and only pretends to be black to symbolize something, and such a game with the meaning of accepted historical facts annoys, among others. Egyptians and does not contribute to improving the social situation of other races of man. And yet, apart from the controversy, the manifesto should carry the educational, shaping and knowledge-giving value, in contrast to everything that it criticizes. Jada Pinkett Smith and Tina Gharavi focused on shocking, not educating. The question is, what about the facts? Were they questionable enough for her to be right? Will the Neflix document defend itself at least in the form and method of implementation?
When I say that Jada Pinkett Smith focused on shocking, not educating, I mean not only the controversy over the color of Cleopatra’s skin and her immediate surroundings (Charmion and Iras are also black), but a certain way of making the documentary as such. Actual stagings of past events take up much more space than factual analyses. The voice of the narrator is lost somewhere in the dialogues, which is not good for the educational role of the whole. So we are witnessing Netflix pushing a completely new form of documentary production, which I admit that I am not used to and I see its simplification compared to older productions. However, I would like to feel surprised and see in the future that this form of education will work better on young people and will interest them in ancient history more than books. For now, I doubt it, looking with a slight embarrassment at the bed scenes of Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra with Mark Antony, embellished with music like from 365 days. Documentary productions should not be so trivial.
Returning to the color of Cleopatra’s skin and the facts that may be in conflict with the concept of the series, on the one hand, the first reaction is very disturbing that the image of Cleopatra is inconsistent with some image adopted by us, even pop culture, but it is worth considering where this the idea has appeared and whether there are any facts confirming or contradicting it. Undoubtedly, it is disturbing that Jada Pinkett Smith explicitly said that she wanted the series to be something of a manifesto, and she chose the color of Cleopatra’s skin on purpose for one purpose – to shock. She undoubtedly succeeded. On the other hand, it is explicitly stated in the series that the ruler from the Ptolemaic dynasty was Macedonian. Her pedigree is not questioned, even emphasizes her strangeness in relation to the Egyptians. However, in the history of her family, it is difficult to find significant and unambiguous evidence that, despite her Macedonian origin, she could not have had darker skin. Different researchers have different opinions on this. Cleopatra VII is said to have been three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian. The identity of her father’s mother is unknown. There is a possibility that her skin could have been darker than the one presented in the pop culture model we know from the role of Elizabeth Taylor, and to which we have become accustomed, that now the new image of the Queen of Egypt, so proudly and anti-patriarchally emphasized by Netflix and the creators of the documentary, raises objections like the whole woke up culture.
Not only that, in the series it is clearly stated that Cleopatra wanted to get closer to her subjects, among others. by changing its image from European to more African, not only a mental change consisting in adopting a foreign culture, but also a visual one – make-up, clothes, tan, etc. From the experts’ statements, we can also learn that Cleopatra is a symbolic figure, not only a historical one . Her character means something different to everyone. For the black community, it can therefore be a symbol of black skin. They have a right to it. This concept can be radically opposed in the series, if the historical facts are distorted, and the symbolism of Cleopatra is clearly mentioned, including the symbolic color of her skin, and on the other hand, her Macedonian origin is not questioned, and it is even said that her skin could have many different colors, because no image of the ruler has survived to our times. So the hysteria of the Egyptians and some viewers is probably a bit exaggerated. Because on the one hand, the creators focused on shocking with the image of Cleopatra, but on the other hand, in the scientific layer, they did not distort the facts. However, they trusted the viewer to be able to separate the symbolic layer of the idea of the figure of the queen of Egypt from historical ambiguities related to her figure – and skin color.
But let’s compare her symbolic and historical situation with, for example, Jesus? Its existence is somehow not questioned by anyone, which is strange. There are much fewer sources about him confirming his historical existence, because we cannot treat the New Testament as evidence, especially since it was written down many years after the death of the alleged man who bore the name of Jesus based on the colorful oral messages of the followers of the new religion, mainly for reasons political and anti-Jewish. You just had to give people some proof. Write down a myth that will be used to bind the followers of the new religion, and this will be a tool of political struggle against the Roman occupier. The earliest reference to Jesus is found in non-Christian history in the “Testimonium Flavianum” written by the Jewish historian Josephus in The Early History of Israel, but it is AD 93-94. Unfortunately, they are considered interpolation, so at least in a significant part a later, purely Christian addition, which results from the stylistic and semantic nature of the added fragments. Other sources are either obscure, although older, such as a letter from 70 CE. Mara Bel-Serapiona, or younger, so marked with a similar interpolation as the Flavian insert, because there are no other valuable sources before them – I mean, for example, the Annals of Tacitus from 115 CE, or the letter to Trajan written by Pliny the Younger (61–113 AD). So, if the evidence for the existence of Jesus is so weak, why is his skin color and existence not widely discussed, and such irrational emotions are caused by Cleopatra’s pedigree? She was at least a historical figure, not a syncretic one, i.e. created on the basis of pasting together the life histories of many ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek deities, which appear at every step throughout Christianity, even in its demonology.
So before we react hysterically because of something as insignificant as skin color in this case, it is worth considering, and not immediately filing the case with the prosecutor’s office, because it will be dictated rather by the fear of the symbolic emancipation of Cleopatra as a cultural archetype, and not by the analysis of pure facts. There is no denying that Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra smacks of cliché, but after analyzing the facts, the concept of the black ruler of Egypt is not so senseless, especially since the series emphasizes a clear distinction between the historical and symbolic layers of the main character. I will be in a real shock when in some document I see, for example, Queen Elizabeth II played by a black actress, or Martin Luther King played by a white actor, and not a character from ancient times about whom we know very little compared to the biographies of modern characters in which played the undoubtedly black Adele James.