On Sunday, Britain’s Daily Star reported that Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie — two white actresses — are competing for the role of Cleopatra, sparking outrage across social media. Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) demanded that the African queen should be played by a woman of color, even though the historical Cleopatra was Greek, not black.
TIRED: StoP wHiTewAsHiNg CLeOpATRa!!!111!!!11!
WIRED: Film the story of literally any other queen on the vast African continent.
— KJ (@KendraJames_) January 14, 2019
“I don’t know how legit this is, but I think Cleopatra COULD be a great role for Lady Gaga – whoever, today’s audiences might want to see a regionally correct actress for the role… what would YOU want?” comic book author and YouTube creator Grace Randolph tweeted, likely suggesting that a “regionally correct” actress would need to be black.
I don’t know how legit this is, but I think #Cleopatra COULD be a great role for #LadyGaga – however, today’s audiences might want to see a regionally correct actress for the role… what would YOU want? https://t.co/ztjH29iHzn
— Grace Randolph (@GraceRandolph) January 14, 2019
Black movie reviewer Valerie Complex also complained about “white actresses fighting over the role of Cleopatra,” suggesting a film about “Literally any other Queen in the world preferable a WoC,” or “woman of color.”
Tired: Movies about Cleopatra
Tireder: White actresses fighting over the role of Cleopatra in said movie
Wired: Literally any other Queen in the world preferable a WoC pic.twitter.com/lNotlBLaVt
— Valerie Complex♓️♎️♋️ (@ValerieComplex) January 14, 2019
“I’m not sorry to tell y’all but [Rihanna] definitely has that role owned! Gaga and AJ shouldn’t even been in the running,” Nick Holmes-McGowan, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, famous for fighting leukemia and pledging to run for president in 2032, tweeted. “Honestly if a black woman ain’t playing Cleopatra, then NOBODY should play the AFRICAN EGYPTIAN QUEEN CLEOPATRA! PERIOD!”
I'm not sorry to tell y'all but @rihanna definitely has that role owned! Gaga and AJ shouldn't even been in the running. Honestly if a black woman ain't playing Cleopatra, then NOBODY should play the AFRICAN EGYPTIAN QUEEN CLEOPATRA! PERIOD! pic.twitter.com/6z59o4EV9I
— Nick Holmes-McGowan (@MrNickMcgowan) January 14, 2019
“Cleopatra. More white washing,” Jonathan R. Whitfield, a pastor and former Atlanta city council candidate, tweeted.
Cleopatra. More white washing
— Jonathan R.Whitfield MDiv (@JWhitInspires) January 14, 2019
“Don’t NOBODY wanna watch a white Cleopatra,” another Twitter user posted. “How about a real queen like Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira (Okoye), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington? Real women of color. In those days Egypt was in N. AFRICA. Wasn’t no pale skinned people in that region.”
“Idc what y’all say. In conclusion, Cleopatra was a BLACK WOMAN,” Alexus Brown tweeted. “A white woman wouldn’t be able to withstand Egyptian BCE temperatures.”
Despite all this outrage, Cleopatra was not black. This historical dynamo — known for wooing Julius Caesar and Mark Antony — was an African queen, but she was descended from the Greek general Ptolemy. Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s four generals who carved up the Greek empire after Alexander’s untimely death. Ptolemy ruled Egypt and established a dynasty that lasted until the Romans took over.
While some recent research has suggested that Cleopatra’s sister was “half African,” it remains unknown if Cleopatra and her sister had the same mother, whether the body actually belonged to her sister, and what exactly it means for her to be “half African.” Egyptian art has presented ancient Egyptians as having comparatively light skin, as contrasted with the black Nubians. Finally, had Cleopatra been black, the Romans likely would have remarked on it.
“There’s a lot to get annoyed with in Hollywood’s casting practices but … despite being queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was of Greek descent,” The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer tweeted. “The Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek.”
There's a lot to get annoyed with in Hollywood's casting practices but … despite being queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was of Greek descent. The Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek.
— Adam Serwer🍝 (@AdamSerwer) January 14, 2019
Some black activists argued that Greeks can be black. “Psst…Greek people can be Black,” tweeted George M. Johnson.
Psst…Greek people can be Black https://t.co/Nc3gMGZNBA
— George M Johnson (@IamGMJohnson) January 14, 2019
While Greek people who intermarry with Africans can indeed become black, the Ptolemaic pharaohs followed in the footsteps of previous Egyptian rulers in marrying their sisters, creating an incestuous situation that would have exacerbated the olive skin of the Greeks, rather than mixing it with any of their black neighbors or subjects.
The Greco-Roman world was less race-conscious than modern America, but nationality and tribe mattered more. The Romans regarded the Ptolemies as Greek. Even if the Ptolemaic dynasty had not engaged in incest, Egyptians themselves were far from uniformly black.
While these SJWs were wrong to suggest Cleopatra should be black, it seems fair to suggest that other African queens might deserve films of their own. Cleopatra holds a unique role in Egyptian and Roman history, but the mythical Queen of Sheba or Egyptian queens like Nefertiti and Hatshepsut could provide good fodder for Hollywood. Why not also extend the scope to other kingdoms such as the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, or Christian Ethiopia?
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.