Queen Cleopatra: Adele James responds to backlash over her role in Netflix’s historical drama

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The Netflix series directed by Jada Pinkett Smith has been accused of “blackwashing” a historical Egyptian icon.

Actor Adele James has responded to backlash over her casting in the upcoming Netflix docudrama Queen Cleopatra. It was announced in April that the Casualty star would play the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra in the series. The 27-year-old British actress believes she has “every right to have a shot at humanising this incredible woman”.

The second instalment of Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens series follows the rule of Cleopatra in the final years of the Ptolemaic dynasty in the North African kingdom of Egypt. However, it has attracted criticism in Egypt after it was accused of “blackwashing” the country’s historical icon.

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Adele told Glamour Magazine: “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 continued: “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. 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. 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.”

Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary has filed a lawsuit against Netflix over the casting and has demanded action be taken to suspend the series. He says the historical drama violates media laws and is aiming to "erase the Egyptian identity".

Mixed race actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in the new Netflix seriesMixed race actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in the new Netflix series
Mixed race actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in the new Netflix series | Netflix

Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and is descended from Alexander’s general Ptolemy I. She succeeded her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC. Her racial identity is currently unknown, but experts have previously insisted she was “light-skinned, not black”.

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Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, spoke to al-Masry al-Youm, an Egyptian newspaper about the controversy. He said: "Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black. Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is Black.”

In 2020, Israeli actress Gal Gadot shut down suggestions of “whitewashing” after it was revealed she would play Cleopatra in a biopic directed by Patty Jenkins.

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