NYT Justifies Casting Black Cleopatra amid Controversy: She Was ‘Culturally Black’

Cleopatra was “culturally black,” according to a recent New York Times piece facing accusations of “blackwashing” history after proposing the “plain weird” rationale for Netflix’s casting of a black-skinned Cleopatra despite being of Macedonian Greek descent.

The Wednesday essay, titled “Fear of a Black Cleopatra” was penned by Gwen Nally, an associate professor of philosophy and associate faculty member in the race, ethnic, and gender studies department at the University of Missouri, Kansas City; and Mary Hamil Gilbert, an assistant professor of classics at Mississippi State University.

The article begins by noting how the new Netflix docudrama, titled Queen Cleopatra, has already stirred strong emotions among viewers, “though perhaps not the kind that publicists hoped for.” 

“Since news broke that the series would star the British actress Adele James, fans, Egyptologists, scholars of Greco-Roman antiquity and Arab and Greek news outlets have been debating whether the series willfully distorts history,” the authors write. “The reason? ‘Queen Cleopatra’ depicts the legendary monarch as Black.”

The essay goes on to note the Ptolemaic queen’s historical portrayals which have led to her being claimed and celebrated by various communities, from Egyptians and Greeks to modern American pop culture, each interpreting her identity in different ways:

Cleopatra, who died in 30 B.C., remains a source of pride for disparate communities. Many contemporary Egyptians view her as a key figure in the preservation of their history and even as a role model for contemporary Egyptian women. Greeks have also claimed her, noting that she was of Macedonian and Greek descent. Depictions of Cleopatra with darkly pigmented skin date back at least hundreds of years. A 14th-century chronicle depicts her in a kind of charcoal gray. Scholars have long debated whether certain references in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” suggest that the playwright believed she had dark skin. 

“In contemporary American pop culture, the assertion is often stated as fact, with her characterized as a beautiful and powerful Black African queen, her name commonly referred to as such in hip-hop,” the authors add.

However, the new four-part documentary series, produced and narrated by 51-year-old actress Jada Pinkett Smith, has “touched an international nerve,” the essay claims, noting that the debate surrounding the series “escalated when an Egyptian lawyer called for Egyptian authorities to censure Netflix, accusing it of misrepresenting ‘Egyptian identity,’ as a former minister of the country’s antiquities insisted a “falsehood” stands at the heart of the series.

“Cleopatra’s ‘first language was Greek,” the ex-official wrote, “and in contemporary busts and portraits she is depicted clearly as being white.”

Oddly, the essay seems to sidestep the issue by arguing that race has less to do with skin color and more to do with viewpoints, claiming “current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves.” 

Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen with which to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.

The authors then pose the following question: “How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?”

The answer, according to the essay, is that the powerful female ruler was “culturally” black.

“Netflix’s casting was informed by the views of Shelley Haley, a renowned classicist and Cleopatra expert, who claims that, although evidence of her ancestry and physical attributes are inconclusive, Cleopatra was culturally Black,” the authors write.

“Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own,” the essay continues. “Building on that experience, Dr. Haley’s academic work on Cleopatra adopts a more complex criterion for racial identification than skin color alone.” 

It then cites Haley, who wrote: “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black, we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival.”

According to the Times’ essay’s authors, Haley’s point is that “we are not limited to considering only representations of what Cleopatra looked like or descriptions of her ancestry.” 

“We can also use what we know of her life, reign and resistance to understand her race as a shared cultural identity,” they add.

While reiterating that Cleopatra’s experience “was part of a history of oppression of Black women,” the essay’s authors argue that “[r]eclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture.”

“Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist,” they add.

The authors then address the dilemma created by distorting a historical figure’s skin tone, emphasizing the significance of “cultural” complexion.

“To recognize Cleopatra as culturally Black is not to pretend that skin color is meaningless now — in the manner of recent figures like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, who claimed a cultural identity that was not theirs,” they write. 

“In our society, race and racism are deeply entwined with skin color and other inherited physical traits,” they add. “We cannot understand modern forms of oppression without understanding how phenotypical difference contributes to them, and we cannot legitimately claim a racial history without having lived it.”

Regarding the “oppression” that goes along with skin tone, the essay concludes that Cleopatra “lived it.”

“And it’s that experience, not her physical attributes, that should determine how we imagine her life,” it ends.

It is unclear what oppression the authors are referring to when referring to the powerful monarch who held significant power and influence.

In response, many turned to social media to ridicule the “plain weird” piece.

“After admitting Cleopatra was not black and cautioning that ‘current notions of race are relatively recent inventions’ that should not be imposed on the past, the authors then declare Cleopatra ‘culturally Black’, as if that is not as anachronistic and just plain weird,” wrote terrorism and national security researcher and analyst Kyle Orton. 

“They’re going with Cleopatra as an ancient Rachel Dolezal,” wrote political psychologist Richard Hanania.

“Why are they putting so many words to page just to say yeah we wanted to be ethnic chauvinists so we decided to erase this country’s actual history by calling this a documentary,” wrote reporter Zaid Jilani.


“The blackwashing of ancient history continues,” wrote one Twitter user.


Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra, which began streaming Wednesday, has ignited a firestorm of debate over the decision to cast a black actress as Cleopatra. 

The debate has become especially intense in Egypt, where Netflix is being denounced as a historical revisionist trampling on an entire nation’s history.

As Breitbart News reported, the online criticism has become so volatile that the streamer turned off comments on social media posts showing the trailer for the series. 

Later, a Change.org petition calling for the series to be canceled was removed without explanation.

Last month, the film’s director Tina Gharavi defended her casting decision, saying it was a “political” choice to feature Cleopatra as black, as she appeared to acknowledge the real Cleopatra wasn’t.

The matter comes as the progressive left continues to push racial double standards, with racial accuracy being of prime importance only when it fits their radical agenda.

Last week, Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss stated Hollywood’s new “thoughtless” diversity inclusion standards make him “vomit.” 

He also defended Laurence Olivier’s 1965 “blackface” rendition of Shakespeare’s Othello, though the British film has long been the subject of controversy.

Asked if there’s a “difference between the question of representation and who is allowed to represent other groups… and the case of blackface explicitly in this country given the history of slavery and the sensitivities around Black racism,” Dreyfuss said, “There shouldn’t be… because it’s patronizing.”

In 2021, a China-born music professor at the University of Michigan was forced out of teaching a Shakespeare class — and reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX — after showing the classic Othello to his class, which included students offended by Olivier’s darkened skin.

Last month, a CNN opinion piece slammed the new Disney adaptation of Peter Pan despite its diverse cast and inclusion of girls in the “Lost Boys,” claiming the switch to non-white actors “isn’t enough” to address its core components of “racism” and “colonialism.”

Another CNN essay warned against white people posting memes featuring black people, claiming they may be guilty of “digital blackface,” which he describes as one of the “most insidious forms of contemporary racism.”

Previously, a New York Times op-ed claimed the 1964 classic film Mary Poppins is racist, as it argued the main character can be seen “blacking up” her face with soot as she dances with chimney sweeps.

“This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature,” the author claimed.

Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.

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