Netflix’s ‘Black Cleopatra’ prompts Egyptian broadcaster to make its own series with light-skinned star

A government-owned Egyptian broadcaster has responded the casting of a Black actress to play Cleopatra in the Netflix docudrama series “African Queens,” which streams from May 10, by announcing production of its own big-budget Cleopatra doc.

The fact that Britain’s Adele James, who is of mixed heritage, plays the first-century Egyptian ruler as a queen with African roots in the Netflix original produced by Jada Pinkett Smith has been sparking an uproar in Egypt. Ever since the trailer dropped last month local academics and others are claiming that Cleopatra, who was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and belonged to a Greek-speaking dynasty, was of European descent and not Black.

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In response to what they claim is Netflix’s falsification of Egypt’s history, the Al Wathaeqya channel — which is a subsidiary of Egypt’s state-affiliated United Media Services — has announced start of production on a high-end doc about the true story of Queen Cleopatra, which it claims in a statement is based on the “utmost levels” of research and accuracy.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the government entity in charge of heritage, has complained on Twitter that “Statues of Queen Cleopatra confirm that she had Hellenistic (Greek) features, distinguished by light skin, a drawn-out nose and thin lips.”

Popular comedian Bassem Youssef in a recent TV interview with British journalist Piers Morgan accused Netflix of trying to “take over our Egyptian culture.” And an Egyptian lawyer has filed a complaint demanding that legal measures are taken to block Netflix outright in Egypt, to prevent the show from airing, though that has not happened — at least not yet.

“Why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” the show’s director, Tina Gharavi, wrote in an op-ed piece defending the casting in Variety online last month. “Perhaps it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”