While its series of documentaries covering the lives of notorious Roman emperors may be finished (and duly reviewed on Concerning History here, here, and here), Netflix is clearly not done with delving into the lives of ancient rulers. The most recent installment, Queen Cleopatra, has reached a level of international notoriety that the various Roman Empire seasons could never hope to match, however, due to the decision to cast a black woman as the titular Egyptian ruler. Familiar with the cultural currents that might have fueled such casting, I knew I’d need to judge the series’ interpretation for myself.
It is impossible to avoid the issue of Cleopatra’s race in Queen Cleopatra, not just because of my own historical knowledge or the protests of the Egyptian government, but because it is thrust front and center by the documentary itself. As with so many elements of ancient history, limited sources mean that we can rarely be one hundred percent certain of anything, but it is clear that Cleopatra’s family, the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty of Hellenistic Egypt, originally hailed from Macedonia in northern Greece (somewhat south of the modern nation of Macedonia). This fact is readily acknowledged in the documentary, yet because the identity of Cleopatra’s mother (and possibly grandmother) is unknown, it takes the further steps of not only portraying the famous queen as part-Egyptian (not that controversial, historically) but claiming that “Egyptian” can then cover casting Cleopatra’s entire family as sub-Saharan black African. This appears to be an intersection between modern concerns of representation and diversity in Hollywood–where, admittedly, Cleopatra has long been played by equally problematic white European women–with long-running, historically-dubious Black Nationalist claims first presented in the 1970s that ancient Egypt was not only racially homogenous, but homogeneously black. The historical reality probably lies in the middle of these two extreme positions: as far as modern ideas of race can serve to describe peoples separated from us by millennia, Cleopatra would have in all likelihood appeared to modern audiences to be of Middle Eastern descent, similar to the majority of those living in modern Egypt or Palestine or the rest of the Near East. Yet none of this intellectual baggage is actually discussed by the historians of Queen Cleopatra. Instead, they decide to simply portray the ambiguities of their subject’s heritage as an opportunity for each person to read into her what they prefer; one talking head even says that this is the “beauty” of her as an historical figure. This is somehow worse than if the documentary had taken an unapologetically Black Nationalist stance; this is not how history works, and hearing professional historians express such sentiments in an official capacity is not just inaccurate–it;s downright shameful.
Unfortunately, these sentiments are not just confined to Cleopatra’s physical portrayal in the series. Whether through an effort to make its titular queen relatable to modern audiences or simply because they’re just really big fans, the historians interviewed for this series paint a compelling picture of Cleopatra’s character as a human being, from her fascination with scholarship to her sense of betrayal at the actions of her siblings to her delight at finding an intellectual equal in Caesar to her “true love” with Marc Anthony. In fact, this characterization is so detailed it cannot possibly be real. Cleopatra authored no ancient sources that we are currently aware of and was described almost exclusively by hostile Roman sources, many of them well after her death (and none of them ever identified by name, even in passing, in the series). Ascribing emotions and motivations we cannot possibly know as part of some sort of “expert” explanation of events is yet more ahistorical methodology, as is the decision to go too far counteracting Roman historians’ barbs and never calling out a flaw or mistake in Cleopatra’s actions. It should also be mentioned that I am always bemused at attempts to make individuals who believed themselves to hold absolute power and be living gods relatable to a twenty-first century audience, let alone worthy of emulation.
While all this may paint a historically damning portrait of Queen Cleopatra, I actually don’t have many problems with all these things as creative decisions. We as people are certainly entitled to read whatever we want into historical figures; indeed, it’s probably impossible not to! Similarly, accurately portraying historical actors how they would have seen themselves would likely render any such media unwatchable as a story, whether through our own boredom or horror. I am personally a fan of many of Jeff Shaara’s novels of fictionalized history, where he tells major events of American history through the eyes of participants–but these novels are tellingly not pretending to be monographs. A similar approach to Cleopatra’s story is totally fine by me, and would leave room for creative casting choices that do not necessarily align with history. Yet when one makes a history documentary, one enters a pact with the audience that what is presented is accurate and educational; it is not the place for inaccurate portrayals, fawning adoration, or flights of storytelling fancy. As just such a documentary, then, Queen Cleopatra fails utterly.