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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Queen Cleopatra review – the idea that you need a white actor is utterly insidious | Television & radio | The Guardian

Queen Cleopatra review – the idea that you need a white actor is utterly insidious

Adele James, who stars in this curious Netflix docudrama about ancient Egypt's most famous queen is the best thing about it – despite the furore around her race

Leila Latif
Wed 10 May 2023 04.00 EDT Last modified on Wed 10 May 2023 04.59 EDT

There's often a debate about whether real-life subjects are better suited for drama or documentary treatment, the core (but admittedly oversimplified) belief being that documentaries serve primarily to educate while drama serves to entertain. Netflix's docudrama Queen Cleopatra tries to have its cake and eat it too: it has all the campy fun of Cleopatra the soap opera in dramatic re-enactments, but intersperses them with straight-faced expertise from academic talking heads. Despite these historians' impressive credentials, the drama outshines the testimony at every turn. Executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith delivers the narration with such sombre self-righteousness that it sucks the joy out of the atmosphere. It's a deliciously fun drama weighed down by the self-serious need to educate.

The biggest buzz about Netflix's latest comes from casting a Cleopatra with light brown skin and curly hair – it met with uproar from those who insisted that she couldn't possibly be Black. This insistence on her whiteness is curious, as much of her lineage (including her mother's race) is unknown. Her Macedonian roots had spent eight generations in Egypt at the time of her birth, and many of the specifics of her family tree have been lost to the annals of time. But while that uncertainty opens her up to being played by any number of actors, it is notable that some see blue-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and Israeli Wonder Woman Gal Gadot as more accurate. Cleopatra's precise skin and hair texture are up for speculation, but to default to whiteness is insidious and ridiculous. Cultural acceptance of an image of a beautiful white woman with a straight jet-black bob does not make it a fact, as her portraits of the era are limited to the sides of coins, and tales of her stunning looks were written hundreds of years after her death.

In this docudrama, she is played by Adele James, a mixed-race actor with a glorious crown of dark curls who brings a fierce intelligence to her portrayal of Cleopatra. James folds the Queen's inner turmoil into every step of her journey, from a naive princess poring over text in the Alexandria libraries to a formidable queen who would rather die than succumb to a life in bondage. It's hard not to feel that she is the programme's greatest strength.

The series puts little stock in the particular skin colour of its lead, given the uncertainty of her appearance. In fact, it suggests that people tend to view Cleopatra as their proxy. The African American academic Prof Shelley P Haley says that, like her grandmother, she pictures her as Black. Dr Islam Issa says he imagines her as having the same pale brown skin and curly hair as he does. Identifying her as one thing or another amounts to little more than guesswork and presumes that race is, or ever was, a fixed concept.

Yet despite their solid credentials and insight into her origins, the talking heads regularly feel more like fans than historians. Some of their insights resemble fan fiction, particularly when they speculate as to how great a lover Cleopatra must have been. Given the two millennia that have passed, describing her and Caesar's trysts seem overly salacious, but to their credit, the actors perform it with steamy aplomb. It illustrates how successful this could have been as a campy drama where dramatic licence could have gone full sexy soap opera. It's clear that they want to have a little fun with the documentary elements, but using terms like "ghosting" when describing Marc Antony's three-year absence feels incongruous. James's characterisation of Cleopatra as a female badass feels plucked from contemporary graphic novels, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A nonfiction sexing up of one of the most powerful women who ever lived, espousing knowledge of her prowess in the bedroom, however, is a more uneasy proposition.

Despite having to vacillate between descriptions of her subject as a politician, a seductress and a warrior, James manages to excel in each. She brings intelligence and nuance to a performance that is strikingly better than what surrounds her – which seems apt, given that Cleopatra was undeniably such an exceptional force of nature. Even when faced with hordes of angry citizens or soldiers that clearly amount to little more than a few dozen extras, James maintains an air of a leader commanding thousands. Her portrayal keeps the programme's energy alive and interesting for those familiar with the history, even though it's aimed at those with only cursory knowledge of it. It conveys why Cleopatra is still a household name in 2023, and how complex and extraordinary her life was. Sadly, those who can only see this story in black and white have missed the point.

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