Netflix Black woman-led ‘Queen Cleopatra’ docudrama sparks controversy

The upcoming series from Jada Pinkett Smith drops on the streaming service this May.

Loading the player...

Netflix’s upcoming docudrama series is already making headlines. “Queen Cleopatra,” from executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, is the first season of a series set to highlight and center African queens in history, with Black actress Adele James portraying the iconic historical figure.

Queen Cleopatra – Production Still Image
Credit: Netflix

Queen Cleopatra’s ancestry and race had become debated subjects for decades, with the conversation not only bringing up ways that historical figures are examined but also how and when modern categorizations took shape in society and culture. The release of the trailer for the upcoming series has reignited these takes, with some, like the project’s director, Tina Gharavi, defending the depiction. In contrast, others go as far as suing the streaming service.

Netflix is facing a lawsuit regarding the docudrama series, per BBC. An Egyptian lawyer, Mahmoud al-Semary, filed a complaint stating that the streamer uses the series to “promote the Afrocentric thinking… which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.” The complaint also demands that the public prosecutor block Netflix access in Egypt and take “the necessary legal measures.”

Gharavi spoke out against the backlash in an essay for Variety, detailing how she became involved in the project and when she realized “what a political act” it was to cast a Black actress as Cleopatra.

She wrote about previous iterations of Cleopatra, played by Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, to the recent casting rumors regarding “Cleopatra” films set to star actresses like Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot.

“For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before … meant we had to get it even more right. The hunt was on to find the right performer to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.”

“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” she continued. “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians, it seems to really matter.”

Gharavi also spoke out about an online hate campaign directed at both her and the project since its announcement and throughout production, with many Egyptians accusing her of “‘blackwashing” and “stealing their history.”

“Cleopatra is a queen who many know about, but not in her truth,” series narrator and executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith said in a statement along with the trailer release. “She’s been displayed as overtly sexual, excessive, and corrupt, yet she was a strategist, an intellect, a commanding force of nature, who fought to protect her kingdom… and her heritage is highly debated. This season will dive deeper into her history and re-assesses this fascinating part of her story.”

As theGrio previously reported, Netflix announced the series in August 2021, with two seasons confirmed. While the first season centers Cleopatra, the second season highlights Njinga, the 17th-century warrior queen of Matamba and Ndongo.

“Queen Cleopatra” drops on May 10 on Netflix.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!