What Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra Gets Right and Wrong About the Real History
Netflix's new Cleopatra doc raises questions about the life of the Egyptian queen. We unpack what the doc leaves out and why the last pharaoh was more than just her skin color.
The proverb of “all press is good press” feels almost as old as the Nile. Yet it’s being put to the test this week via the release of Netflix’s African Queens: Cleopatra. The documentary is the second of three from the streaming service and executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, both of whom have committed to spotlighting women rulers in African history by way of historical reenactments (or “docudrama”) which is then juxtaposed against interviews with talking heads and experts.
Yet the veracity of the documentary aspect of the film is being aggressively challenged after Netflix’s Cleopatra cast Black British actress Adele James as Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last pharaoh of Egypt and the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The trailer even rather proactively includes a line from one of its interviewees, Professor Shelley P. Haley of Hamilton College, who said her grandmother once told her, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”
The assertion and casting came under fire from several notable quarters, including those in the actual modern Egypt. Dr. Zahi Hawass, a prominent Egyptologist and former Minister of Antiquities for the Egyptian government, told the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper (via BBC) last month, “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not Black.” Meanwhile the Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary has filed a complaint to the public prosecutor of Egypt, demanding the nation block access to Netflix in that country.
Conversely, Pinkett Smith has said in the press, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important to me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!”
All of which has drawn a lot of attention to the Netflix documentary, raising questions over what is the real history of Cleopatra VII, and what does Netflix get right and wrong about her… including in regard to the color of her skin.
The Real History and Heritage of Cleopatra
One thing that the Netflix documentary gets right is the title. Yes, Cleopatra was an African queen. This is sometimes lost in the chatter between those who insist that she was either “Greek” or “Egyptian.” Whatever her heritage, she was a pharaoh of Egypt, which is in Africa, and she descended from a family that ruled from this seat for 293 years. That’s longer than the United States has existed as a nation. So to insist that Cleopatra and her family were only “Greek” is somewhat disingenuous. At the very least, it’s reductive.
However, the Ptolemys invited this perception, not least of all because they adopted one of the ancient customs famously utilized by Egyptian pharaohs of yore: they embraced incestuous unions within their family, usually by marrying brother to sister (often more than the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom), although occasionally they’d settle for an uncle wedding a niece, or a cousin marrying a cousin.
Cleopatra VII had only one set of great-grandparents, who were themselves an uncle and niece. And while the lineage of her mother is unknown, many historians including Stacy Schiff, who wrote the fairly authoritative Cleopatra: A Life (2010), believe it was likely one of her father’s sisters. Even the name Cleopatra, one of the only three monikers that Ptolemys used for women in their bloodline, is of Macedonian origin, with the word being Greek for “Glory of Her Fatherland.” Schiff likens their family tree to an overgrown shrub.
As another way to look at it, consider that Daenerys and the Targaryen family on Game of Thrones were inspired by the Ptolemys of Egypt, right down to claiming their lineage from a great conqueror several centuries earlier, although in the case of the Ptolemys their purported kinship to Alexander the Great was tenuous at best. (Ptolemy I was one of Alexander’s advisors and friends when Alexander liberated Egypt from the Persian empire in 332 B.C.… and who then took Egypt for himself following Alexander’s death in 323.)
Still, Cleopatra was unique among the Ptolemys in her embrace of Egyptian culture. Technically Alexandria was a rarity in the ancient world, a thriving metropolis where all cultures were welcome at what was viewed as the gateway between the Mediterranean states and the “far east” of India. Egyptian sphinxes mingled with Greek marble statues of Zeus, and up to 20 percent of the population was Jewish.
Nonetheless, the dominant culture remained Greek. The language spoken by the Ptolemys’ government officials was Greek, and while native Egyptians were expected to learn Greek if they wished to participate in this society, many of the Greek-descended Egyptians never bothered learning the nation’s native language. Cleopatra, however, did learn Egyptian, which according to legend made her the first Ptolemy to bother doing so. She also could speak Troglodytae (an ancient language from the African interior of modern day Ethiopia) and several other dialects. It was a tribute to her interest in the people she ruled, as well as a useful tool against her enemies. Whereas other Macedonian-descended Egyptians (like her younger brother/enemy/first husband) spoke to their armies through interpreters, Cleopatra could command them herself, and by way of a presence that was repeatedly described as charismatic and persuasive.
As for the actual hue of Cleopatra’s skin complexion, it is something that cannot be said with absolute certainty. Few statues of the final Ptolemy pharaoh have survived to the modern era, although Roman busts and frescos from the first century depict Cleopatra as a redhead with fair skin. These are likely informed by her visits to Rome in 46 and 44 B.C. You can view one below. Meanwhile the only likeness she probably personally approved of that survives today is from various ancient Egyptian coins that match general descriptions of the Ptolemy line, including a prominent nose and raised brow.
French art historian André Malraux once remarked in the 20th century that “Nefertiti was a face without a queen,” referring to a 3300-year-old bust of that Egyptian queen which has survived to the modern era, while “Cleopatra was a queen without a face.” With that said, other members of the Ptolemy family, including her father, were often remarked to have a “honey skin” complexion by their contemporaries. It’s unlikely that her skin tone would be remarkably different as her family was so inter-married. Also because of the general ambivalence by previous generations of Ptolemys toward full-blooded Egyptians, it’s doubtful such mistresses or liaisons were taken into the palace.
Still, “honey” could confirm that Cleopatra and her family reflected the small Persian heritage in their gene pool due to Ptolemy V marrying a half-Persian noblewoman about 120 years before Cleopatra’s birth. We simply cannot know for sure.
Of course the whole obsession over Cleopatra’s appearance—usually as a sex symbol and now as a figure defined by her skin color—is ironic since the Egyptian queen was never glorified by male contemporaries for her beauty or physicality. Rather it was her intellect and blinding charisma that left an impression. The legend of Cleopatra seducing Caesar on the first night they met, with the exiled Egyptian princess sneaking into her old palace and having her body presented before the Roman general from a rolled up carpet, is undoubtedly romanticized. However, she did sneak into that palace in what was probably a rolled up leather sack, and she was presented to Caesar that night, albeit not necessarily straight from the sack. And before the year ended, she was pregnant with the Roman dictator’s child.
Her gift for persuasion must have been strong, too, since Caesar wound up fighting Cleopatra’s war against her younger brother/husband, helped depose him, and put Cleopatra on an uncontested throne without demanding Egypt be annexed into Rome’s territory in return. Caesar then also dallied in Egypt for months, going on a Nile tour with the then-quite pregnant Egyptian queen (a fact Roman historians attempted to obscure for centuries).
But it was her wit, cunning, and charm that the Greek historian Plutarch tells us was irresistible. She is a woman who was raised from birth with the most elite education in the ancient world. The peerless Library of Alexandria, beckoning from outside her childhood home, was where scholars figured out 1500 years before Galileo or Columbus that the world was round and circled the sun (Cleopatra even briefly fancied attempting to cross the globe, albeit by beginning eastward toward India). Her allure was seemingly derived from her wealth, her power, the excesses derived from living in the most luxurious palace of the first century B.C., and her mind.
So why the obsession over her complexion?
What Netflix Gets Right and Wrong
The debate over Cleopatra’s skin color says more about our modern world than the ancient one. The cruel and sinister bigotries entrenched around race were mostly forged in the 16th and 17th centuries by white Europeans seeking to justify the abject evil of African chattel slavery. And to this day, so much of the world, past and present, is viewed through that racial lens.
This is perhaps one reason why the idea of Cleopatra being Black gained popularity in the 20th century, as scholars and historians sought to unpack centuries of racist brainwashing by white historians. The first book to truly popularize the idea was John August Rogers’ World’s Great Men of Color, which was published in 1946. However, much of that book’s Egyptian history is itself suspect, including when Rogers incorrectly said Ptolemy XIII was Cleopatra’s father (he was the brother/husband that Caesar’s forces ultimately fed to the Nile).
African Queens: Cleopatra courts this 20th century debate but obscures the facts around it. The documentary goes to great lengths at pointing out that we don’t know for certain who Cleopatra’s mother was. And yet, it also depicts the entire Ptolemaic line as Black, which given historical accounts of their appearances and family history is plainly false. The documentary also omits any images of Roman busts or Egyptian coins of Cleopatra’s apparent likeness which might complicate this narrative.
But the doc’s merits and flaws are, like its subject matter, more than skin deep. There is some solid history in the Netflix original that can inform and entertain those new to the subject matter. Whenever the documentary shifts gears toward actual historians, scholars, and archeologists speaking about the basic facts of Cleopatra’s life, the film is credible. By design, the film is meant to be an introduction to novices and thus glosses over some of the more intricate details (such as reducing Ptolemy’s triumvirate of Egyptian advisors poisoning his ear to just “the eunuch”), but it often gets the gist across.
The reenactments, on the other hand, are a grab bag of artistic flourishes and outright distortions.
Beyond our modern obsession with race, African Queens: Cleopatra seems determined to depict its central African queen as a role model and superhero as defined by 21st century sensibilities. When the facts are more complex or disturbing—such as Cleopatra carefully orchestrating the murder of all of her siblings and rivals for the throne—the reenactments attempt to skew this into the actions of an aggrieved sister who is helpless at changing the quirks of family history, as opposed to the ingenious strategies of a true game of thrones player. More bizarrely still, there are sequences where Cleopatra is depicted as being trained in what looks like a gladiatorial arena in Syria with a sword and shield to “fight for her people.” That, and not anything to do with casting, is the doc’s most ludicrous sequence.
Also suggesting that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe IV seduced Caesar as an explanation for why he didn’t have her executed has the air of a sordid soap opera being inserted into the material to “sex it up” for modern streaming tastes. Tellingly, that beat is not grounded in anything said by the talking heads.
In the end, African Queens: Cleopatra is less history than it is wish fulfillment. And it once again bends the historical personage of Cleopatra into the image that’s most useful to current trends and thoughts. In 1963, it was Elizabeth Taylor as a regal sex kitten, and in 2023, it’s as a selfless warrior queen. There’s good history buried within the documentary that walks hand-in-hand with the bad. You can enjoy it as a gateway to learning about Egypt’s last queen or purely as an entertainment, but as a historical document, this thing is lost in the desert.