A woman places a crown on her head.

The Controversy Behind Cleopatra’s Racial Identity

You might be surprised what television show has the worst audience ratings in history. It’s not the series finale of Lost or Game of Thrones. (They were both bad! Fight me!) It’s a show that was doomed at its start: Queen Cleopatra, a four-part docudrama highlighting the rise and fall of Egypt’s last pharaoh that premiered only a few weeks ago.

The show has drawn legitimate criticism for its lack of historical accuracy and production quality. But overwhelmingly, the negative reviews focus on the decision to cast a mixed-race actress in the role, accusing the show of “Blackfishing” Cleopatra to be “woke.”


Learn about the history of Cleopatra.

• Consider: how do casting decisions influence your understanding of history? What images of cultural leaders of color do you have from media?

The show has a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer and a 3% audience score (Rotten Tomatoes). Netflix was forced to turn off the comments on the trailer on YouTube because of hateful speech (Forbes). Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opposes the story, tweeting that “Statues of Queen Cleopatra confirm that she had Hellenistic (Greek) features, distinguished by light skin, a drawn-out nose and thin lips” (Twitter). One Egyptian attorney has even filed a lawsuit against Netflix, claiming the project distorts Egyptian history to promote Afrocentrism. 

The casting decision reignited controversy about the racial identity of the famed female ruler. Cleopatra was the second of five children born to King Ptolemy XII, whose dynasty had Greek Macedonian roots. Marriage within the royal family ensured that all descendants were from the same Macedonian bloodline. But there are questions as to whether both Cleopatra’s mother and paternal grandmother were actually Macedonian. Some scholars believe Cleopatra could have been partially Persian (Iranian). Others believe she could be partially Egyptian since she was the first pharaoh to speak the Egyptian language. And because of that, it’s possible, though unlikely, she also had sub-Saharan African ancestry. This is a very brief overview; you can read different takes in TimeAl Jazeera, and The Conversation.

Despite what you may think from the controversy, the show makes no attempt to define Cleopatra as a Black woman. However, Netflix intentionally decided to “depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt” (Vogue). Shelley Haley, a renowned classicist and Cleopatra expert who worked on the show, saw the struggles that Cleopatra experienced in her leadership as culturally Black, and by portraying her as Black, we can reclaim “part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival” (NYTimes). 

Supporters of the casting decision note that other actresses that have portrayed Cleopatra in the past, like Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Claudette Colbert, weren’t Macedonian, Greek, or Egyptian either. 

What’s more interesting is that these classifications of race would have held little value when Cleopatra was alive. Remember, our understanding of race is a social construct, one that became prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of years after Cleopatra. According to professor Islam Issa, aside from being Jewish, ethnicities weren’t recorded in ancient Egyptian history. It was Cleopatra’s royal ancestry that let her lead, not her racial identity.

Racial classifications might not have mattered then, but they certainly do now. And people are quick to take offense to the idea that Cleopatra could have had darker skin not because of her accomplishments or prowess but because of the anti-Blackness so prevalent today. And bad takes on Cleopatra’s skin tone and hair pattern are distracting us from her historical legacy.


• A new docudrama on Queen Cleopatra has been “canceled” because it cast a mixed-race actress in the role of the pharaoh.

• There’s been longtime controversy surrounding Cleopatra’s racial identity, with some evidence suggesting she may have some sub-Saharan African ancestry.

• Regardless of her bloodline, the racial categories that modern scholars may try to apply to Cleopatra don’t reflect any understandings of race or ethnicity that were held during that time.

2074 1430 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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