Netflix’s depiction of Queen Cleopatra as Black enrages Egyptian scholars and racists alike – Screen Shot
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Netflix’s depiction of Queen Cleopatra as Black enrages Egyptian scholars and racists alike

It has taken major streaming platforms—and the media landscape at large—far too long to prioritise telling stories which feature POC protagonists. And, in so many ways, there is still such a long way to go. With this important shift has also come a lot of new and crucial societal discussions regarding the ways in which projects can accurately ensure diverse representation.

African Queens—a Netflix docu-series narrated and produced by renowned actor, Will Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith—has been one such project subject to a number of nuanced and layered debates and controversies. The series, which has already released its first season about Queen Njinga of Angola, tells the stories of important powerful African women of history.

Pinkett Smith explained at a Netflix fan event: “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens… 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.”

While an objectively necessary and empowering show, the Netflix series has received some valid criticisms regarding its casting choices. In the first season, the actor cast to play Queen Njinga was  British-Nigerian Adesuwa Oni. Understandably, some Angolans did take issue with the fact that not only was the season filmed in South Africa, but both of the major protagonists weren’t native to the country.

Season two of the show will cover the story of Queen Cleopatra, an Egyptian royal. And with so much discourse already surrounding season one, it’s no surprise that there’s been a magnifying glass on the episodes set to follow.

According to The Independent, Cleopatra will be portrayed by biracial British actor Adele James. The casting has allegedly sparked debate in Egypt, with some locals disputing the fact that Cleopatra wasn’t actually Black in real life. Due to there being so little information regarding the Egyptian Queen’s racial identity, much of the conversation has been based on a handful of academics’ supposed findings.

A number of historians have assessed that Cleopatra was most likely Greek, and therefore would have been light-skinned. In fact, one lawyer has even filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor take “the necessary legal measures” and block access to Netflix’s services in Egypt.

Opinions online have been definitely mixed. A number of young Egyptians have stated their umbrage with the casting decision. One user named Mars posted an extensive Twitter thread discussing the show, dissecting Cleopatra’s heritage and imploring people not to watch the show, writing: “It’s very hurtful as an Egyptian to see your culture and identity being stripped away from you.”

Journalist and historian David Abulafia wrote an opinion piece in The Spectator, stating: “Although the name of Cleopatra’s mother is unknown, there are good grounds for insisting that she was not of Egyptian descent. Cleopatra’s Greekness was expressed in her daily speech.”

On the other hand, in the African Queens docu-series, historian academic Sally Ann Ashton has been quoted noting: “Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems strange to insist on depicting her as wholly European.”

The expert went on to conclude, “Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were Indigenous women, they would’ve been African, and this should be reflected in contemporary representations of Cleopatra.”

It’s also incredibly important to recognise the fact that there have been numerous examples of shows whitewashing historical figures and moments in time, and there’s been barely a peep of criticism in those instances. However, when the actress in question is a Black woman and there’s some potential historical disparity at play, everyone seems to have a critique to share.

It should also be pointed out that a number of the opinions shared online inaccurately focus on the idea of ‘Afrocentrics’ now dominating mainstream media, an idea that’s not only false but also clearly charged with colourism and racism.

James herself has responded to the criticisms, posting on her Twitter: “If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show. Or do and engage in (expert) opinions different to yours. Either way, I’m gassed and will continue to be!”

The new season of African Queens is due to land on Netflix on 10 May 2023. Until that time comes, it’s likely that academics and netizens alike will continue to question the genetic makeup of Queen Cleopatra. And while discourse and debate is inevitable and often encouraged, it also shouldn’t be an excuse to spread hate and harm.

Unpacking an important criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens: Njinga Netflix docuseries

There was a time when African cinematography that didn’t cast Black people solely as slaves felt like a farfetched dream for those of us who are diasporans. I’ve always desperately longed for my Angolan culture and history to be represented on mainstream screens. Still, I never considered the impact of the creators’ and writers’ gaze—especially when a win for the continent might not equate to a win for the country.

In February 2023, Netflix released part one of its newest docuseries African Queens: Njinga, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith. It promised to shed light on some of Africa’s greatest female monarchs, with the first four episodes tracing the rise, reign, family betrayal and political rivalries of Queen Njinga (commonly known as Nzinga), the 17th-century ruler of Ndongo and Matamba (in present-day Angola).

Speaking at the premiere held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Pinkett Smith, joining in through a Zoom call, told the room that the inspiration behind the docuseries, which blends dramatisation and documentary, stemmed from a conversation with her daughter.

At first, we thought, ‘Let’s go to Africa and study the queens of Africa together as mother and daughter.’ Because that terminology queen is tossed around a lot but what does it take to actually be a queen? So that’s where it really got inspired,” the actress and talk show host told the audience.

As one of the latest initiatives to highlight the lost stories of African female rulers, African Queens follows in the footsteps of The Woman King, a period action film which tells the story of the Agojie—a brigade of female warriors from present-day Benin, and Malika: Warrior Queen, an animated feature film based on Amina of Zaria, the mid 16th century Hausa warrior queen, by Nigerian-born, US-based animator Roye Okupe.

In 2022, after the Netflix docuseries had been announced months earlier, American Rapper 50 Cent also publicised that he was executively producing a scripted series titled Queen Nzinga for the American premium cable channel Starz. In his series, Nigerian-born actress Yetide Badaki has been cast as the Queen while in Pinkett-Smith’s, British-Nigerian actor Adesuwa Oni played Njinga.

In the early stages of making African Queens, Kenyan-born Peres Owino, one of the series’ writers, told SCREENSHOT that this African-American hunger for this kind of content is a great opportunity for filmmakers to use these stories as a bridge for diasporans.

“African-Americans were diasporans first, so Njinga’s story and her fighting against the slave trade, who do you think she was trying to save?” Owino posed. “And if we can use story to act together then we can get the wholeness the diaspora is seeking, we will find each other in our stories,” the writer added.

While the growing movement of breaking away from male-dominated narratives of the continent’s history of leaders is a win for Black African women, how much of a win is it for Angolans when Pinkett Smith’s series was filmed throughout South Africa and both protagonists are set to be non-natives?

“I’ve watched the Semba Comunicação’s movie Njinga: Queen of Angola [premiered in 2013], so I came with no expectations for Netflix’s Njinga,” said Manuel daCosta, 43, from Luanda, Angola.

“Despite the fact that the series had more of a historical evolution from the film, which I found profound, I didn’t understand why there was no use of the native tongue Kimbundu—a Bantu language that originated from Angola. In negating this, they dismissed the spirituality of the story,” Da Costa added.

On the other side of things, Kavulamine Arantes, a social activist from Angola, told SCREENSHOT that the lack of infrastructure in Angola could be one of the reasons why production didn’t film within the country. Arantes stated: “We [Angolans] are not prepared for big [production] things. Yes, we are growing and have very good actors but we lack support and initiative from those who regulate these matters. But we need to take ownership and matters into our own hands so we can tell our own stories.”

Shortly after the release of the series, BBC World News caught up with Owino and Oni, who played the Queen. In response to her Nigerian roots, Oni stated that she focused on the humanity of the person, rather than nationality when auditioning. “I was grateful to get the opportunity to tape for it and do a call-back, and when I was told I got the part what was important to me was to honour the person.”

The actress continued: “I’ve been given the opportunity to play Americans in my life, does that mean African-Americans will say I’ve got no right to play them? But it doesn’t mean I don’t understand that for some people it is important.”

Netflix’s African Queens: Njinga includes the input of credentialed experts and historians. One is Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, a real-life woman king of the Bakwa Luntu people, living in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. In response to whether Netflix attempted to tap into the Angolan dialect, Owino told the BBC’s Nyasha Michelle that including Queen Kabatusuila as the continuation of the lineage of Njinga showcases that history has never ended.

“Whenever you have black people doing a film about black people, especially in Africa, it’s about finding that thing that’s honourable. It’s done with respect because we know why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to show the world who we really are because so many narratives have gone out that have put us in a specific light,” Owino concluded.