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Opinion: Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ documentary controversy is warranted

It’s uncommon for a show to be universally panned by both critics and fans of all sides of entertainment. The last show this happened to was “Velma,” an animated show on HBO Max, which ruined the childhood Scooby-Doo character. Just months later, “Queen Cleopatra” on Netflix is the top dog of internet controversy. The show is a “documentary” revolving around the life of Cleopatra during her rule in Ancient Egypt.

With this being a documentary, the claims of historical inaccuracy were the main point of many people’s anger toward the new show. Many articles claim that this is a docu-drama series, something that is historical fiction. However, there is no claim from anyone involved that this is a docu-drama, and all websites with official descriptions of the show label it as a documentary. 

The initial controversy started on April 12, 2023, when the first trailer was released online. Many people were offended by the fact that Cleopatra was inaccurately portrayed as a Black woman since historians proved years back that she was of Macedonian Greek descent. One of the more notable phrases from the show comes from a historian saying, “When I got home from school, my mother told me to forget what they teach you; Cleopatra was Black.” This emphasized the historical inaccuracies in what was supposed to be a documentary. 

Many people on the side of the show claimed that this response is from racists, claiming they are the same people who complained about the race-swap for Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” However, while Ariel is a fictional character, Cleopatra was not. Another claim was that people didn’t care when a white woman played Cleopatra in the 70s, however, this claim was refuted as the movie wasn’t a documentary and was a work of historical fiction. 

In response to the initial controversy, Jada Pinkett Smith, the showrunner, said that Cleopatra’s “heritage is highly debated.” In addition, the actor for Cleopatra, Adele James, said, “If you don’t like the casting, then don’t watch it.” This angered many Egyptians, as Smith has no relation by blood or nationality to Egypt and was promoting ‘Afro-centrist’ beliefs. In response to the documentary, many Egyptian historians began to work on banning the show in Egypt, claiming it was a ‘falsehood’ and ‘cultural appropriation”. Zahi Hawass, who is a prominent Egyptologist and former antiques minister, said the show was completely fake, even pointing out that the only rulers of Egypt who were known to be Black were the Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty, which was from 747 to 656 BC. 

When the documentary came out, the words from Adele rang loud in the ears of Netflix viewers, as the show only got 20.2 million streaming hours, which, divided by the roughly four-hour length of the whole show, is 5.05 million people. This is difficult for the series, as it was beaten out by shows that have been around for weeks and even years, as “Bridgerton” season 1 easily beat out “Queen Cleopatra” by millions. On top of that, the show hasn’t been gaining new viewers past its initial release either. After six days the show fell from the second and third spots for five days before dropping to #16 on the sixth day, showing that the poor word-of-mouth destroyed any chance for the show. 

In addition, the show is now the worst-rated show of all time on IMDB with a 1.0, the lowest a show can be rated, and Rotten Tomatoes, sitting at 10% with critics and 2% with consumers. For many critics who watched the show, they found issues with not just Cleopatra, but the entire production as a whole, calling it a “patchy ‘Game of Thrones’ cosplay interwoven with academics you’ve never heard of.” 

Critics also refer to the series: “As a pure drama, it would all have been absolutely no worse than plenty of other things. Albeit not good ones.” Many consumers have been quick to point out the many historical inaccuracies with the show, pointing out how events aren’t lined up correctly or are completely made up. 

Overall, the show is still receiving backlash and Egyptian lawyers are preparing a lawsuit against Netflix. However, for now, the show still remains the worst-rated show of all time on all major platforms. 

Griffin is a senior studying strategic communication at Ohio University. Please note that the views expressed in this column do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Griffin? Tweet him @griffinshaivitz.

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