“It is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”
Last summer, I was living in Venice Beach and had decided, due to a friend’s persistence, to visit a fortune teller. Me, ever the sceptic but game for a laugh, agreed to go along. What the fortune teller said made me roll my eyes: “I am not saying you are Cleopatra but somehow you share her story and are connected.”
Less than a month later, I got a call from a production company making Jada Pinkett Smith’s “African Queens” and was subsequently hired to direct four episodes of a drama-documentary on the life of the controversial leader. The joke was on me.
I remember as a kid seeing Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was captivated, but even then, I felt the image was not right. Was her skin really that white? With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s heritage and release her from the stranglehold that Hollywood had placed on her image?
Born in Iran, I am a Persian, and Cleopatra’s heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians. The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family — the Ptolemaic lineage — intermarried with West Africa’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely. After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.
Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress. For me, the idea that people had gotten it so incredibly wrong before — historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her — meant we had to get it even more right. The hunt was on to find the right performer to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.
Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.
After much hang-wringing and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength. What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.
As production got nearer, I realized the magnitude and political nature of this job. It was important to get things right, but also to find a way of telling the story with humanism and nuance: The last thing we needed was another Cleopatra divorced from her womanhood and her power only sexualized. The HBO series “Rome” portrayed one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a sleazy, dissipated drug addict, yet Egypt didn’t seem to mind. Where was the outrage then? But portraying her as Black? Well.
Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am okay with this.
While shooting, I became the target of a huge online hate campaign. Egyptians accused me of “blackwashing” and “stealing” their history. Some threatened to ruin my career — which I wanted to tell them was laughable. I was ruining it very well for myself, thank you very much! No amount of reasoning or reminders that Arab invasions had not yet happened in Cleopatra’s age seemed to stem the tide of ridiculous comments. Amir in his bedroom in Cairo wrote to me to earnestly appeal that “Cleopatra was Greek!” Oh, Lawd! Why would that be a good thing to you, Amir? You’re Egyptian.
So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.
Most of all, we need to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than it is about who we are.
It’s almost as if we don’t realize that misogynoir still has an effect on us today. We need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction. I am proud to stand with “Queen Cleopatra” — a re-imagined Cleopatra — and with the team that made this. We re-imagined a world over 2,000 years ago where once there was an exceptional woman who ruled. I would like to draw a direct line from her to the women in Egypt who rose up in the Arab uprisings, and to my Persian sisters who are today rebelling against a brutal regime. Never before has it been more important to have women leaders: white or Black.
“Queen Cleopatra” debuts on Netflix on May 10. Gharavi is a BAFTA and Sundance-nominated filmmaker. Her debut, “I Am Nasrine” was nominated for a BAFTA in 2013. Her next feature documentary, “Tribalism is Killing Us,” which resulted from visiting Angola State Prison, will release later this year. Gharavi teaches filmmaking around the world, and was awarded an MIT Fellowship. She was elected into BAFTA in 2017.