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Alesha Davis, a sophomore journalism and english double major from Fort Worth, TX, smiles for a portrait at Ohio University, on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Athens, Ohio.

Opinion: 'Queen Cleopatra' backlash unwarranted

Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra,” released in April, has faced heavy criticism. The controversy surrounds the casting of Adele James, a Black actress, as Queen Cleopatra.

 Those who are outraged argue that Adele’s casting is appropriation, including some Egyptian historians. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities tweeted that the casting is “considered a falsification of Egyptian history,” and Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud Al-Semary is trying to get the documentary blocked in Egypt

Like the historians, many argue that Cleopatra could not have possibly been Black and behaved as though saying otherwise threatens the very culture these stories are from, and many Americans have taken it upon themselves to take their criticism to the web in the form of tweets, articles, blog posts and death threats. I have seen this sequence before. 

Just months ago, people were in an uproar over Halle Bailey being cast as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” This, too, was called appropriation. Halle faced a lot of racism, and many declared they would boycott the movie. Others have also noted the similarity between the controversy surrounding the two movies. 

However, it is also argued that the two scenarios are incomparable. “The Little Mermaid” is fiction, and mermaids are (probably) not real. Ariel’s skin tone has no consequence or meaning in her story, nor does a Black Ariel erase the previous movie from existence. Instead, it creates another role model for little Black children to look up to and see themselves in, in a world that is still lacking positive Black representation on the screen, especially for young audiences. 

But are the two situations really so different?

What many seem to ignore is why Jada Pinkett Smith, executive producer of “Queen Cleopatra,” cast a Black Cleo. In an interview with Tudum, Netflix’s companion website, Jada states, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them.” 

Importantly, I would like to highlight the second part of her statement, “The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.” 

Something we often don't think about is how much of Black history has been lost to time and purposeful destruction. While others can trace their heritage down to the Greats, many Black people do not have that luxury due to ancestral lines being lost to the transatlantic slave trade. 

Thus, we must look for our history in the margins, much like the rest of Black existence.

Cleopatra probably wasn’t Black. Neither was Ariel. Or Tinkerbell. But what does it really matter? The existence of the new Little Mermaid does not erase the animated movie. “Queen Cleopatra” does not mean another, more historically accurate documentary can also be made. 

I ask, why now do we care about “accuracy”? And again, I ask, does inaccuracy warrant vitriolic behavior towards those who just want to create role models for children who lack history to look to? Who lack any documentaries at all? To me, why it matters is clear. And it doesn’t have much to do with wanting accuracy at all. 

In an interview with Glamour, James said she hopes that when Black girls see “Queen Cleopatra,” the show “tells them that they are power. They come from power. They are power. They are beautiful. They are seen.” That is what is important to me

Maybe Jada should have chosen a different figure, a different story to tell. But I cannot fault her for trying to fill gaps. I cannot fault her or anyone involved for trying to create the things we never had in our youth for the generations of the future. And above all, I will not excuse how those who cry for “accuracy” are behaving. Death threats, racism, and even calling for the show to be removed speak more towards hatred for Black people rather than wanting to address inaccuracy, especially since Cleo’s skin tone is not the only inaccuracy in the show. Yet, it seems to be the only thing we are focusing on.

Here I must echo Adele’s tweet in response to the harassment she has faced: “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show. Or do & engage in (expert) opinion different to yours.” 

Ratings may be low, but reviews can be unfair. Historians may call for its removal, but we have long known that experts are not immune to biases. I know I will be watching Cleopatra with my family, and we will enjoy seeing a powerful Black woman on screen, true-to-life or not. 

Alesha Davis is a senior studying journalism and English at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of  The Post. What are your thoughts? Tell Alesha by tweeting her at @AleshaTDavis

Alesha Davis

Equity Director

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