Who knew that Cleopatra VII would be the center of a racial commotion in Hollywood? It was reported in The Guardian recently that Angelina Jolie is slated to play the role of the Egyptian pharaoh in a new film based on a biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff. Jolie’s life partner Brad Pitt might also get to play her love interest Mark Antony, which is reminiscent of the onscreen/off screen relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 film version. According to the film’s producer, “the movie is being developed for and with Jolie.”
This film has also put a spotlight on the ongoing issue of whether or not Cleopatra should be portrayed by a black actress. In the last one hundred years, the international cinematic community has produced nearly 30 films portraying the goddess. Hollywood has produced three film depictions with Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor.
The La Liz version made in 1963 is the most well known of all the films, not only because it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, but also the original director of the film, Rouben Mamoulian, was fired because he wanted the glamorous black actress Dorothy Dandridge to play the lead role. At the time, it was believed that having a black Cleopatra could be box office poison. Furthermore, considering the racial climate in America at the time, a black woman starring in such a powerful role and potentially having an onscreen white lover was too risky. Nonetheless, it turned out that the film would be a flop without Dandridge, as it is still considered one of the biggest box office failures of all time.
So, let’s fast forward to 2010. African-Americans have since made greater strides in Hollywood both in front and behind the camera. Isn’t America supposed to be “post-racial” now? If a black man is good enough to be in the White House, why is it still an uphill for black actresses to great roles in films, especially playing the enlightened, powerful Cleopatra?
Now I couldn’t begin to have this conversation without mentioning that Cleopatra’s true racial identity is not known even by the experts. It is generally accepted that Cleopatra was most likely of Macedonian Greek heritage; however, there is now evidence that she possibly had some African blood.
With that said, it would be great to have an actress of color play the role, not only because the last three Hollywood films had white actresses and, based on the evidence, it might be historically accurate to have a black or mixed race actress get the role, but also it would be nice to see more actresses of color play roles that are not racially stereotypical. While Halle Berry and Mo’Nique are both great actresses, they won Oscars for playing a promiscuous woman and a welfare queen, respectively; roles that don’t exactly help positively advance how black women are viewed in our society. It is very frustrating that actresses of color often can’t get beyond the “mammy” roles.
There are so many fabulous African-American actresses qualified to play the role, but it would be great if a Hollywood producer found a talented African actress to potray Cleopatra. A common complaint from the African community is that actors from the continent are never considered for roles about historical African figures and are also relegated to playing stereotypical roles.
It’s about time that Hollywood think outside the box, and realize that black women are beautiful queens too.