“It is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”
By Tina Gharavi
… What the fortune teller said made me roll my eyes: “I am not saying you are Cleopatra but somehow you share her story and are connected.”
Less than a month later, I got a call from a production company making Jada Pinkett Smith’s “African Queens” and was subsequently hired to direct four episodes of a drama-documentary on the life of the controversial leader. The joke was on me.
Obviously, Jada Pinkett Smith, a demanding person (Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for making fun of her), isn’t going to hire you to make African Queens episodes about Cleopatra if you insist upon a historically accurate depiction of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was, apparently, a homely white lady.
I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white? With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?
… Born in Iran, I am a Persian, and Cleopatra’s heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians. The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family—the Ptolemaic lineage—intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.
Cleopatra’s Macedonian ancestors spoke Greek (she was the first in her line to speak the local Coptic.) But they adopted Egyptian royal inbreeding so she had only 6 great-great-grandparents rather than the standard 16.
After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.
Huh? How does that work?
Here’s Greek-born soap opera actor John Aniston with his daughter. Jennifer Aniston is half-Greek.
Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson had a Greek mother who grew up in Albania and a Bulgarian Muslim father who was born in Greece.
Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress. For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before—historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her—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?
Are you allowed to say “melanated sister” if you are an Aryan? But Aryans aren’t white. Just ask the Biden Administration, which wants them to get affirmative action.
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.
After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.
,,,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. I am okay with this.
While shooting, I became the target of a huge online hate campaign. Egyptians accused me of “blackwashing” and “stealing” their history. Some threatened to ruin my career—which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much! No amount of reasoning or reminders that Arab invasions had not yet happened in Cleopatra’s age seemed to stem the tide of ridiculous comments.
Huh? Does this Iranian lady assume Egyptians were black until the Arabs invaded in the 600s? Didn’t the ancient Egyptians leave us countless pictures of themselves as well as mummies?
Amir in his bedroom in Cairo wrote to me to earnestly appeal that “Cleopatra was Greek!” Oh, Lawd!
Are Aryans allowed to say “Oh, Lawd?” like they don’t know nothing about birthing babies?
Why would that be a good thing to you, Amir? You’re Egyptian.
So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.
This Iranian lady is still angry about Liz Taylor. And Jennifer Aniston. And Rita Wilson. But it’s not about her, it’s about standing up for the melanated sisters.