Adele James, who plays the titular role in Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra docuseries, has addressed the controversy around the Jada Pinkett Smith-executive-produced project after the Egyptian government criticized the portrayal of the country’s famous ruler as dark-skinned.
“Blackwashing isn’t a thing, is it?” the British actress told The Wayne Ayers Podcast on Wednesday about the controversy over Cleopatra’s race and heritage, which remains a hotly-debated subject among historians. “I find it sad that people are either so self-loathing or so threatened by Blackness that they feel the need to do that, to separate Egypt from the rest of the continent,” the Casualty star added.
Netflix declined comment on the docuseries’ creative choice to cast James, who is of mixed heritage, to play Cleopatra to reflect historical research that points to Egypt’s population in ancient times being multicultural and multiracial.
“Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt,” the producers of the series told Netflix’s Tudum website in a story posted last month.
The portrayal hasn’t sat well with Egypt experts. Jane Root, who also executive produced Queen Cleopatra for Nutopia, could not be reached for comment.
The biopic, which bowed Wednesday on Netflix globally, is part of a documentary series from Pinkett Smith that explores the lives of prominent and iconic African Queens. The first season of the docuseries followed the 17th-century warrior Queen Njinga, the ancient ruler of Ndongo and Matamba, which today is known as Angola.
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter (Willow), and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them. The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations,” Pinkett Smith said in the Tudum article.