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Behind the Beauty: Cleopatra’s Political Savvy Explored in Engaging New Series

Queen Cleopatra

TV-14 -     

Genre: Documentary
Year Released: 2023
Runtime: 4 x 45m episodes
Director(s): Tina Gharani
Cast: Adele James, Craig Russell, Nada El Belkasmi, Sami Fekkak, James Marlowe
Where To Watch: premiering on Netflix on May 10th, 2023, at 2:00 AM CDT

RAVING REVIEW: Jada Pinkett Smith, as Executive Producer, brings us an engaging “documentary” series that examines the stories of legendary African Queens. This season, the enigmatic Queen Cleopatra VII takes center stage, a figure famed for her charm and romantic encounters but whose true strength lies in her razor-sharp intellect, often obscured by her notoriety. The series explores her life, political savvy, and the ongoing debate surrounding her ancestry.

Let me get this out of the way; I couldn’t cover this series without discussing the controversy surrounding Cleopatra’s ethnicity. I had considered avoiding the topic altogether but thought that would be more of a disservice. The series' director, Tina Gharani, confronts the traditional depiction of Cleopatra as a white woman, embodied by Elizabeth Taylor's unforgettable performance. At the same time, Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an Associate Professor of Classics, Women's and Gender Studies, and Environmental Studies at Denison University, cautions against imposing modern racial concepts on historical figures. Gharani argues that Cleopatra, with eight generations separating her from her Macedonian descendants, was unlikely to be white. With that being said, that doesn’t mean she was black; it also doesn’t mean she was white.

Casting a Black actor in the leading role has sparked conversations and controversy. Gharani, in the face of criticism, wonders why Cleopatra cannot be shown as a person of color and why her worth seems tied to her presumed whiteness. Adele James, who portrays Cleopatra, has faced backlash and addressed her critics through social media platforms and having racial slurs thrown at her. I should put my two cents into this conversation; if we knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was white, then I would take issue with this casting.

Unlike the casting of a fictional mermaid in Disney’s new adaptation of  THE LITTLE MERMAID, Cleopatra existed. I don’t know enough about the history of Egypt to see the likelihood of her being black vs. white. Although scientifically speaking, the odds are greater that she was a POC, which would be something for historians and scholars to debate. Although numerous academics contribute to the series, they stop short of explicitly supporting Haley's hypothesis. However, a growing consensus recognizes that Cleopatra's appearance was likely less European than previously portrayed.

The series employs a structure of a docudrama mixed with a conventional documentary, weaving interviews with experts and historical reenactments. Thanks to a sizeable budget, the production quality outshines that of similar endeavors. This is especially true when you look at comparisons to similar projects on other networks and streamers. I was impressed by the take on the series; it’s a unique mix of educational and entertaining. I could see this series style being shown to students at school.

While the series has flaws, I would have liked to see a little more in-depth coverage of Cleopatra’s life vs. what she meant to her society; it still examines Cleopatra's life and her place in history. The informative and entertaining storyline highlights her achievements and lasting impact. Regrettably, the series falls short of fully pleasing history buffs and drama lovers, as it lacks the academic depth desired by the former and the cinematic flair sought by the latter.

This “documentary” series offers a fresh perspective on Queen Cleopatra VII, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in her intriguing narrative, political understanding, and the controversy around her lineage. Despite provoking heated debate, the series challenges conventional representations of Cleopatra and encourages the audience to reevaluate their perceptions of the iconic queen. This is similar to the controversy behind Christ being portrayed as white vs. Middle Easterner. Through a mix of expert insights and historical dramatizations, the series delivers a fun yet not entirely fulfilling exploration of Cleopatra's life and her enduring influence.

All of this being said, if someone has factual information that would counter any of my takes, please share them with me. I always want to learn more and don’t want to be disrespectful to any culture or heritage. I know that many in Egypt are upset about this, but I’ve yet to see anything other than “depictions” of her on coins, etc., to say matter-of-factly that she was one or the other.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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[photo courtesy of NETFLIX]