Actress Adele James says she has ‘every right’ to portray Cleopatra despite ‘blackwashing’ criticism

Adele James, the black British actress who plays Queen Cleopatra in an upcoming Netflix docuseries produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, has made it clear she believes she has “every right” to play Egypt’s famed last pharaoh.

As previously reported, “Queen Cleopatra,” as the show’s called, has faced massive criticism for portraying the historical figure as a black woman.

But the criticism hasn’t been coming from white people, as leftists might assume. It’s been coming directly from Egypt, where the non-white inhabitants have expressed feeling mortified at the thought of a black woman playing their former queen.

Yet in remarks made this week to Glamour magazine, James dismissed the criticism, arguing she has a right to portray Queen Cleopatra.

“The only thing I can say about it [Cleopatra’s background] is that we just don’t know. There are versions of Cleopatra that exist already with actresses in that role who are fairer skinned than I am, but I think I have every right to have a shot at humanising this incredible woman,” she said.

“We all put our blood, sweat and tears into that show, and I think anybody else has as much of a right as anybody else to have a go at it because we just don’t know,” she added.

Her remarks come a few weeks after Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a statement arguing that Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics,” i.e., she wasn’t black.

“Bas reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof,” the statement reads, according to Al Arabiya.

Mostafa Waziri, the head of the Supreme Antiquities Council, concurred. In a statement of his own, he said there’s nothing racist about going after the docuseries since Egypt is merely “defending the history of Queen Cleopatra, an important part of the history of Egypt in antiquity.”

Meanwhile, Egyptian lawmaker Saboura al-Sayyed reportedly renewed his calls for the country to ban Netflix.

James isn’t the only one to defend her casting in “Queen Cleopatra.” So has the show’s director, Tina Gharani.

Writing for Variety magazine in late April, she said that she’d grown up always wondering about the accuracy of Queen Cleopatra-themed shows that portrayed her as white.

“I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white?” she wrote.

She further argued that though the queen was descended from Macedonian royalty, “Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.”

Gharani also claimed James’ casting was a political issue.

“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter,” she wrote.

Dovetailing back to James’ interview, she added that she’s faced “death threats” and “racist comments” ever since she was picked for the role.

“But I guess my main thing is that there is no circumstance under which it is acceptable for anybody to treat me or anybody else the way that I and the cast and crew have been treated since the announcement,” she said.

“The death threats that I’ve received, the racist comments, it’s just the vitriol. It’s not necessary, and it’s very harmful. I feel very sad for people that they would do that to someone they don’t know or to someone they know,” she added.

She further stated at the time that she was worried that the hate would only double once the show was actually released (its release date is May 10th).

“I mean, all we did was release a trailer and look at the response, so I’m anticipating a wave still yet to come. But I think social media and the internet have blown up at a rate that obviously none of us could have predicted. So it isn’t necessarily the safest place to be. But me? I’m stubborn. I’m not being driven off of social media by anybody. Especially not bullies and racists,” she said.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Queen Cleopatra’s race has stirred controversy. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was chosen to play her in a movie back in 2020, critics accused the movie’s producer of “whitewashing” the legendary figure.

Vivek Saxena


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