03 June 2023

Forbes: “Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ appears to have The Worst Audience Score in TV History”

The issue is the conceptualization of what purports to be a historical documentary saying that Cleopatra was a black “African queen”, as this season was supposed to be the first in a series covering different queens from the continent. But there is not terribly credible evidence that Cleopatra was black, and instead she was of Macedonian Greek descent. The country of Egypt in particular has taken offense to the show altering their history this dramatically and portraying it as something they believe is non-factual in a series that is meant to be a documentary.

It is not a huge shock to report that the show is… not good. While historical accuracy aside, Cleopatra Adele James is actually quite good in the part from what I saw (I could only do part of the first episode before I remembered I had about 12 other better shows to watch), the entire thing comes off like one of those bad historical re-enactment dramas I used to watch on the History Channel with my parents as a kid. The information, often inaccurate it seems, is also just very dull, and the entire thing feels like a dry soap opera. I am not shocked the critics are rejecting alongside fans not really even mentioning the issue of the Cleopatra’s casting.

Paul Tassi

Feels weird to comment on a show I haven’t watched (nor do I have any intention to), and that has stirred up much controversy, but the whole situation highlights several prevalent issues. The narratives around race in the US have become so polarized and absurd that people are dismissing historical records and basic nuance such as ‘not all people living in Africa are black’. The hypocrisy of complaining that Hollywood studios are casting white actors to play non-white characters, and then casting a black actor to play a most-likely non-black historical figure are apparently lost on some – not to mention that movies are fictional, and thus have greater freedom to reinvent characters and events, while ‘Queen Cleopatra’ was marketed as a documentary, which should ideally stick to retelling our best current understanding of history.

Painting of Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Ancient Egypt, by Heinrich Faust in 1876
Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Ancient Egypt was depicted by Heinrich Faust in 1876. Credit: Public Domain

On a smaller scale this reflects the ongoing drop in quality at Netflix, which shows no signs of correction. Has anyone there critically reviewed this project beyond seeing Jada Pinkett Smith’s name attached to it? Or did they greenlight it precisely to stoke controversy and, presumably, attention and views?

Choosing to portray Cleopatra as an ‘African queen’ displays a certain laziness as well – one could undoubtedly find other examples of black African leaders to base a documentary around. While it has also been criticized for over-relying on European figures, Civilization VI currently has two ‘African queen’ leaders (Amanitore and Nzinga Mbande) alongside its two versions of Cleopatra. If a strategy game can do the historical research to include them, surely a larger operation the size of Netflix could put in the effort as well.

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