The Netflix docudrama, 'Queen Cleopatra'

Some bizarre ideas refuse to die. In this woke age, Afrocentrism is one of them. This is the claim that ancient Egyptians were black, and that Greeks stole philosophy from ancient Egyptians.

As George James tells this bizarre story in Stolen Legacy, the foundational text of Afrocentrism, “Alexander invaded Egypt and captured the Royal Library at Alexandria and plundered it.” James completely ignores the fact that the library came into existence long after Alexander’s death.

Afrocentrism is the basis of Netflix’s upcoming documentary series, Queen Cleopatra. The actress depicting the queen will be a black woman, thus repeating an old trope in Afrocentrist books.As shown in the trailer, Professor Selley Halley says, “I remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’” This is symptomatic of the woke approach to history: what really counts is how you feel about your claims, not what actually happened in the past. If you feel empowered because you believe some ancient queen had your skin color, and additionally, your grandmother reaffirmed you in your belief, then so be it, evidence not withstanding!  

But facts matter, so let’s get them straight. Cleopatra was descended from the Ptolemies, a dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. This dynasty did not marry outsiders, so they remained Greek throughout. We may therefore assume that her physical appearance would be the same as ancient Greeks, decidedly not black. Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak the local Egyptian language, but her mother tongue was Greek, and she remained embedded in Greek culture.

Admittedly, she made overtures to Egyptian customs, but as Mary Lefkowitz explains in Not Out of Africa — the definitive refutation of Afrocentrism—, “she chose to portray herself as an Egyptian not because she was Egyptian, but because she was ambitious to stay in power.”

The historical record is then clear.

Nevertheless, Afrocentrists unsuccessfully try to poke some holes. The identity of Cleopatra’s paternal grandmother is unknown, so it is claimed that this unknown person was black. But this assumption is a stretch. Cleopatra’s grandmother was a mistress of Ptolemy IX. Given what we know about the Ptolemaic court, even mistresses were Greek. There may have been one exception; a possibly Nubian woman by the name of Didyme. Unlike the many other mistresses in the Ptolemaic dynasty, this woman’s ethnicity was specifically identified. We may therefore presume that those mistresses of unidentified ethnicity were Greek, including Cleopatra’s grandmother.

If there were rumors that Cleopatra’s ancestry was not fully Greek, this would have been hastily exploited by her detractors in Rome. Yet, no Roman author ever claims as much.

The man who popularized the myth of the black Cleopatra, J.A. Rogers, made of much of the fact that “in the opening lines of his Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare calls her ‘tawny.’” Rogers believed that ‘tawny’ referred to a woman of African ancestry, but in the context of the play, Cleopatra is referred as such, not as a real description, but rather, as a demeaning term in order to emphasize her seductive power over Antony.

Celebrity Egyptologist Dr Zahi Hawass, a former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, was one of the leading voices against the documentary’s claims. “Cleopatra was not black. The film that is coming on Netflix is not accurate and gives wrong information on ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was Greek and she was similar to the queens and princesses of Macedonia.”

So, the case is clear: Cleopatra was not black. But what is the harm in casting a black woman for this role in a Netflix series?

Sure, in the past, there have been many actors who played characters of another race. I doubt that Jesus — a Middle Easterner— resembled the blue-eyed Robert Powell in Zeffirelli’s acclaimed Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus’ case is different from Cleopatra’s. Zeffirelli was not trying to make an explicit historical claim about Jesus’ race. The Netflix series does aim to make a historical case for a black Cleopatra.

In so doing, woke producers show no respect whatsoever to serious historical inquiry, all in the name of identity politics.

Indeed, Sara Halley, the professor interviewed for the Netflix series, confessed as much long ago: “I began to see and still am arriving at seeing that Cleopatra is the crystallization of the tension between my yearning to fit in among classicists and my identity politics.” In other words, for this professor, claims about Cleopatra’s skin color are not founded on the historical method, but rather, on her “lived experience.”

Woke nonsense —of which Afrocentrism is a variant— is not harmless fun. It is a frontal attack against the Enlightenment legacy of rationalism and the objective search for truth.

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.