Colourblind casting, even in a supposedly fact-led docuseries, is often to be commended...at least when adequately buffered from nationalistic and racialistic point scoring.
From a 'neutral perspective' this newsworthily controversial example is no sillier than Welshman Taron Egerton playing the Dutch-Indonesian lead in Tetris recently.
The problem seems to be however that it reportedly comes with a provocative Afrocentrist soundbite, plus the fact that most Septics will not begin to appreciate even the upper layers of this issue.
Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, descended from one of Alexander’s generals via some very resolute in-breeding, and so Greek, no hang on a sec, Macedonian. (Cue tedious Balkan bust up).
The Ptolemy clan didn’t marry out much, even affairs were conducted within a very select gene pool, but let's allow that she conceivably may also have been just a tiny bit Egyptian, whilst not forgetting that the Arabs were later, medieval entrants onto the continent, invaders and colonisers, so we are left to conclude that there might just have been some Coptic optics (most honkytonks: huuuuh?).
That most unfortunate term ‘African American’, used typically as a euphemism for schematicised racial polarities in the US, inevitably initiates a form of invisibility for many indigenous ethnic groups on that continent.
The director of the series has only gone and made this oh-so-explicit with her tactless and gobsmackingly patronising comments following the inevitable fall-out on the Nile: “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?...I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”
Oh deary dear. So now the only authentic way to be African is to look like someone descended in the main from black Africans from the western side of that continent?
There is a bit of a backstory here, because for much of the late twentieth century African American counter-culture appeared to admire and lean towards the Islamic identity of North Africa, but has since turned a little more lukewarm on the matter. 'African Americans' are nowadays more likely to be found asserting their birthright to be as culturally insensitive and blithely ignorant as any other sort of American.
Right now there is a superficially progressive tendency for ‘African Americans’ (presumably Rami Malek does not identify as such) to seek out historical narratives beyond the Atlantic slave trade and the struggle for civil rights as a wider source of pride, yet there is obvious potential there for exporting cultural distortions and simplifications which are inevitably going to rile North African peoples for whom ethnic frictions often run deeper and are in a sense more ‘live’ than Netflix/Hollywood is ever going to allow for. The detail is never superfluous…but try convincing that lot.
And observations from series director Mahmoud al-Semary such as "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," are unhelpful at best given that perhaps the more pertinent issue is why people apparently need her to be black, for that is the more obviously counterfactual position.
Anyway, let’s face it, how could this role ever be cast today without setting off a chorus of complaints?
That said, if you make a historical documentary about someone else's history and offend them, you surely need to show a modicum of appreciation of how their discomfit might not be fully explainable within your own models of skin tone biases.
I guess the best ever representation of this Queen will remain the one in the Asterix books, pointy nose and all.
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