Queen Cleopatra actress Adele James says her race does not matter

Queen Cleopatra actress Adele James says it does not matter what race the Macedonian-Greek ruler was and claims ‘blackwashing’ is ‘just a made-up term’ amid row over her casting in Netflix series

  • The star of Netflix’s new Cleopatra drama has addressed the furore over casting 
  • Egyptians reacted with dismay at the casting of black actress in the vaunted role 

The black actress starring in Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ docudrama said it was a ‘political act’ to cast her – and laughed off controversy engulfing the show.

Adele James, 27, takes on the role of the famous queen from the land of the Pharaohs.

The show, which was released on May 10, features claims that Cleopatra VII was black with ‘curly hair’ and a historian saying ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’

Egyptians reacted with dismay at the apparent rejection of records which show Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek. An Egyptian lawyer has filed a case with the country’s public prosecutor demanding that Netflix be shut down.

Ms James said of the role: ‘It is political. To be black or mixed race or a non-white person in the world today, especially in the western world, is kind of a political act in and of itself.

Adding of accusations of black-washing: ‘It’s sort of just a made-up term, like people just coined it all of a sudden for their agenda.

Adele James and John Partridge, who star as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in Netflix’s new docudrama, discussed the racial controversy on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch

Netflix 2023 drama ‘Cleopatra’ sees actress Adele James in the title role of Queen Cleopatra

‘I feel about that word the way I feel about people weaponising the word woke; it’s so embarrassing,’ the Times reported.

She said: ‘In the interests of historical accuracy, it would be great to know either way but I don’t know that it matters any more than any of the other things that we want to talk about with regards to who she was.’ 

Appearing yesterday on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch, she also addressed the the high-profile criticism around being a black actress playing Cleopatra, saying: ‘It would be naive of me to say that I didn’t expect anything at all, but I didn’t expect the scale of it. 

Cleopatra was famously played by white English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic from 1963

‘And I think it’s distressing for anybody to receive any level of abuse, let alone the scale and the nature of what I’ve received, which is fundamentally racist, all of it.

‘People are talking about the wrong things. Yes, we don’t know where her mother was from or her paternal grandmother, but also the show is about so much more than the question mark over her race.

‘If you watch it is a very small part of the conversation really, this is about the fullness of who this woman was and she was a human being and she shouldn’t be reduced to her race any more than I should or anybody should.’

Adele was appearing in the show with her co-star John Partridge, best known for his time in EastEnders.

He added: ‘The controversy is about Cleopatra being black, I don’t hear anybody saying that Julius Caesar is a homosexual from Manchester. 

‘We’re just actors at the end of the day, and sometimes our morality gets called into play, we’re jobbing actors.’

Adele also talked about the support of Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who narrates the series and is its executive producer.

A painting from a villa at Herculaneum in modern day Campania portraying a red-haired woman whose facial features, royal diadem and hairstyle adorned with fine pearl-studded hairpins suggest a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra (left) and an engraving by J Chapman made in 1804, showing a romanticized 19th century conception of Queen Cleopatra (right)

She said: ‘She was so involved in the casting process, she watched all of our audition tapes, she was giving feedback on the rushes when we were out in Morocco shooting. 

‘Blackwashing’ in other films and shows 

Anne Boleyn (2021)

Black English actress Jodie Turner-Smith played the Queen of England in a British TV series. Anne Boleyn was white and the second wife of King Henry VIII.

Saint Joan (2020)

Black New Yorker Condola Rashad played the French heroine Joan of Arc in a stage production of the tale set in the 15th century. In the play, Rashad is a gender non-confirming Joan.

Troy: Fall of a City (2018)

In the TV drama, Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, is played by black English actor David Gyasi.

The Hollow Crown (2012 – 2016)

Sophie Okonedo, a Nigerian-British actress, played Queen Margaret of Anjou in the Shakespearean TV adaptation. Margaret, of French descent, was Queen of England and married to King Henry VI from 1445 to 1461.

Once Upon a Time (2011 – 2018)

The ABC series about fairytales features a black actor Sinqua Walls as Sir Lancelot. 

Lancelot is a British character who features as one of King Arthur’s close companions and one of the greatest Knights of the Round Table. Arthur was a legendary king of Britain and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition. 

Robin Hood (2006 – 2009)

The BBC series featured black English actor David Harewood as Friar Tuck.

Friar Tuck is one of the legendary Merry Men, the band of heroic outlaws in the folklore of Robin Hood which was set in England’s Sherwood Forest in the 15th century.

‘And she’s just been such a champion of the project from the very beginning. I mean, it’s her baby.

‘She is an African Queen and I feel like it just couldn’t be more pertinent and important that she’s the figurehead of this. She’s an icon.’

Cairo’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass condemned the documentary as ‘completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.’

Hawass said the only rulers of Egypt known to have been black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC).

‘Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black,’ he added and called on his countrymen to take a stand against the streaming giant. 

On Sunday, lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the public prosecutor demanding that he take ‘the necessary legal measures’ to block access to Netflix.

He alleged the show featured content that violated Egypt’s media laws and accused Netflix of trying to ‘promote the Afrocentric thinking … which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.’

Cleopatra was famously played by white English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic from 1963.

Three years ago plans for a new movie about the queen starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot sparked a backlash from people insisting the role should go to an Egyptian or African actress.

Gadot defended the decision, saying: ‘We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.’ 

The fury at Netflix’s right-on programming comes after it appeared to have ditched the woke messaging last year.

Netflix took a hit in the first half of 2022, losing about 1,170 million subscribers as rivals such as Paramount+ and Disney+ raked them in.

The huge decline was seen by some as a direct consequence of the company’s late response to demands from its viewers to tone down their woke agenda.

But after deciding to back figures like comedian Dave Chapelle it bounced back. Netflix added 1.75 million new subscribers for the quarter of 2023, nearly 550,000 more than consensus estimates, and a stark contrast to the loss of 200,000 subscribers the company suffered in the same period last year. 

The four-part Cleopatra series will explore the legacy, intellect and life of Cleopatra VII, the Greek Queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC. 

The trailer notes that Cleopatra belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty but then goes on to dispute her heritage. 

Controversy: In the show, which is due to air on May 10, Cleopatra is depicted as black, despite historical records showing she was of Macedonian Greek heritage

Hot water: Netflix has been forced to turn off comments for the official trailer of new docu-series Queen Cleopatra (pictured: Cleopatra, played by Adele James)

Adele James on horseback in the new Cleopatra Netflix series

Adele James (left) in African Queens: Queen Cleopatra 

Adele James in another screenshot from the new Netflix docuseries 

The Death of Cleopatra, circa 1645-55. Artist Guido Cagnacci

‘It’s possible she was an Egyptian’ says one expert, while another adds: ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.” 

The two-minute official Trailer uploaded on April 12 has already amassed over 1.9 million views on YouTube.

Meanwhile, Netflix has been forced to turn comments off on the official trailer, after it was met with controversy. 

A Change.org petition to cancel the show has amassed over 3,000 signatures. A previous petition – which was taken down – had over 62,000 signatures. 

Author Kemi Owonibi tweeted: ‘For the nth time, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was not an Egyptian. 

‘She was Greek! Cleopatra VII was white—of Macedonian descent, likewise all the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt.’ 

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