During the summer before last, I resided in Venice Beach and yielded to a friend’s persistence to visit a fortune teller. Despite being a skeptic, I decided to give it a shot for the sake of amusement. The fortune teller’s prediction caused me to roll my eyes: “I’m not saying you’re Cleopatra, but somehow you share her story and are connected.”
Within a month of that encounter, I received a call from a production company producing Jada Pinkett Smith’s “African Queens” and was recruited to direct four episodes of a drama-documentary about the controversial leader’s life. The irony was not lost on me.
As a child, I recall watching Elizabeth Taylor portray Cleopatra, and I was entranced. However, even at that young age, I sensed that the depiction was inaccurate. Could her skin truly have been that pale? Through this new production, could I finally uncover the truth about Cleopatra’s lineage and free her from Hollywood’s constraining portrayal?
Born in Iran, I am a Persian, I find it interesting to note that Cleopatra’s heritage has been attributed to various groups throughout history, including the Greeks, the Macedonians, and the Persians. However, the known facts are that her family, the Ptolemaic dynasty, were Macedonian Greeks who intermarried with the Seleucid dynasty of West Asia and had been in Egypt for 300 years.
Despite her Ptolemaic lineage, Cleopatra was eight generations removed from her Macedonian ancestors, making it unlikely that she would have been considered “white” by modern standards. After residing in Egypt for 300 years, it seems safe to say that Cleopatra was, in fact, Egyptian. She had no more Greek or Macedonian heritage than individuals like Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston, who are only one generation removed from Greece.
Why is there a reluctance to recognize Cleopatra as a woman of color, and why do some individuals insist on portraying her as white? For some, Cleopatra’s perceived proximity to whiteness appears to give her greater value, and this is particularly important to some Egyptians.
After an exhaustive search and much hand-wringing, we ultimately found Adele James, an actress who not only embodied Cleopatra’s beauty but also her strength. Historians suggest that Cleopatra was more likely to resemble Adele than Elizabeth Taylor, who famously portrayed her in a film.
As we approached production, I became aware of the political significance of this undertaking. It was critical to remain accurate while telling the story with humanity and nuance. We didn’t want another portrayal of Cleopatra that reduced her womanhood and power to mere sexuality. In the HBO series “Rome,” one of the most intelligent, sophisticated, and powerful women in history was portrayed as a dissipated drug addict, yet Egypt did not protest. However, depicting her as a Black woman would likely provoke controversy.
Maybe it’s not only because I directed a series portraying Cleopatra as Black, but also because I challenged Egyptians to view themselves as Africans that they are outraged with me. However, I am comfortable with this.
During filming, I became the subject of a massive online hate campaign. Egyptians accused me of “blackwashing” and “stealing” their history, some even threatened to ruin my career, but I found their attempts laughable since I was already ruining it myself. Despite my reasoning and reminders that Arab invasions had not yet occurred during Cleopatra’s era, the absurd comments continued. For instance, Amir from Cairo earnestly argued that “Cleopatra was Greek!” which was baffling, considering he was Egyptian.
So, was Cleopatra Black? We cannot be certain, but we know for a fact that she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We must have a discussion about our colorism and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has instilled in us.
Above all, we must acknowledge that Cleopatra’s story is more about us than about her. It is almost as though we are unaware that misogyny and racism still influence us today. We must free our imaginations and fearlessly depict our historical figures, embracing the complexity that comes with their portrayal. I am proud to support “Queen Cleopatra” – a reimagined version of Cleopatra – and the team that brought her to life. We imagined a world from over 2,000 years ago where a remarkable woman reigned. I want to connect that line to the women in Egypt who rose during the Arab uprisings and my Persian sisters who are currently protesting against a cruel regime. Women leaders, whether white or Black, have never been more essential.