“African Queens: Queen Cleopatra” director Tina Gharavi responded Friday to criticism about casting black actress Adele James to play the titular role.
Her comments come after the new Netflix docuseries caused an uproar in Egypt. One Egyptian lawyer is suing Netflix and attempting to get the show banned in his country.
Gharavi insists that even though she’s not sure Cleopatra was black, she’s equally convinced that the historical ruler wasn’t white, which is how she’s been portrayed in Hollywood before.
“I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right,” the director wrote in an article for Variety. “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?”
The real Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and most scholars agree that her primary ancestry was Greek Macedonian. The director argued that because of intermarriage, the “chance of her being white” is “somewhat unlikely.”
Gharavi also said she was aware of how controversial the casting choice would be.
“Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress,” Gharavi wrote.
“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” she asked. “Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter,” she continued.
Gharavi described how the “magnitude and political nature of this job” became clear as they got closer to production. She said she’s ultimately “okay” with Egyptians being “furious” with her.
“So, was Cleopatra black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor,” she wrote. “We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”
Gharavi concluded the piece by saying she’s “proud” of the docuseries, which is available on Netflix starting May 10.
“I am proud to stand with ‘Queen Cleopatra’ — a re-imagined Cleopatra — and with the team that made this,” she said, ending with her belief that, “never before has it been more important to have women leaders: white or black.”