Between Afrocentrism and Arabness: Netflix's Queen Cleopatra and Hollywood's problem with colourism

Cleopatra cover
8 min read
16 June, 2023

On May 11 Netflix premiered the new docuseries Queen Cleopatra starring black actress Adele James as the Pharaonic Queen of Egypt.

The decision to cast a black actress has been met with large-scale criticism and accusations of falsifying history.

Furthermore, it shined a light on Hollywood's double standard on Arab representation, since Hollywood has become more culturally sensitive over the past decade but that same treatment hasn’t spread towards Arabs.

Conversely, some of the backlash the show received from Egyptian and Arab viewers calls into question whether there are in fact racial motivations behind their anger.

"Hollywood’s Afrocentric approach to African and African-American representation and its history of colourism has been put under the spotlight"

The racial background of Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt, remains a mystery to this day. However, what has been generally agreed upon by scholars is that she is of Greek ancestry with some Persian and Sogdian Iranian ancestry as a result of her Macedonian Greek family intermarrying with the Seleucid dynasty. It is unlikely that she was black.

Despite that, the interviewed individuals in Netflix’s docuseries confidently claimed that she was. And since the series also included dramatic recreations, Hollywood’s Afrocentric approach to African and African-American representation and its history of colourism has been put under the spotlight.


Afrocentrism is a pan-African approach to the study of African culture, philosophy, and history.

African American followers of this school of thought believe that their worldview should reflect African values. Criticisms of Hollywood’s applications of Afrocentrism are the generalisation of African cultures and regions.

During an interview with Piers Morgan, Egyptian journalist and satirist Bassem Youssef pointed out how Queen Cleopatra and the writing team behind it failed to distinguish between West African and North African history as well as ethnicity. He also emphasised the importance of respecting civilizations’ ethnicities and history in preserving relationships instead of lumping them into one big group.

In an interview with Variety magazine, Tina Gharavi, the director of Queen Cleopatra, claimed that the decision to cast a black actress was in an attempt to correct the course of whitewashing in Hollywood’s history and diversifying the image of history in current and future generations of viewers.

In the same interview, she said that her version of Cleopatra is a re-imagined one, which is misleading considering the series is labelled and filmed as a documentary.


Afrocentrism is part of a broader case of Hollywood’s failure to distinguish between people of colour. Hollywood is quite often accused of “colourism”, the discrimination based on skin colour, specifically when they cast an actor of a certain race or ethnicity to play a character or a role that is of a different race.

This also applies to African-American actors of a lighter tone getting more roles than those with darker tones. Popular examples include the Marvel characters Storm, fictionally of Kenyan descent, with dark skin being portrayed by biracial actresses Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp in the live-action X-Men movies, and The Ancient One who is fictionally from somewhere around the Himalayas portrayed by white actress Tilda Swinton.

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What is called into question as a result of the Queen Cleopatra controversy is Hollywood casting actors of colour to play characters of a different “colour”, specifically Arabs.

An example of this is Oscar Isaac, a Latino actor, portraying the X-Men villain Apocalypse and the titular hero in Marvel’s Moon Knight. While both these characters’ fictional origins vary throughout their publication histories and are not necessarily or explicitly Arabs, it definitely makes canonical sense for them to be and would’ve been an appropriate place for Arab representation, an area in which Marvel has underperformed in so far, but they instead opted to hire Isaac despite neither character ever being depicted as Latino in either comics or live action.

In fact, depicting them as Arabs would’ve been an act of correcting whitewashing made in the past.

Arab misrepresentation

Despite not casting an Arab for the main role, Marvel’s Moon Knight did take many good steps in their attempt at Arab representation. They had a mainly Arab production team including Egyptian screenwriter and director Mohamed Diab and Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Arab superhero The Scarlet Scarab.

With that being said, for a show that is centred around Egyptology and takes place in Egypt for a good number of episodes, the main cast did desperately lack more Middle Eastern and North African actors.

Moreover, the entire show only had a handful of Arabic words and phrases being spoken, while much of the dialogue in Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was released the year prior, was in Mandarin Chinese. This demonstrates that less effort was put into Arab representation.

Another big-budget Hollywood production featuring Oscar Isaac was 2021’s Dune.

The popular film starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya was an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name. The book is based on Islamic theology, mysticism, and the history of the Arab world and the movie uses explicit Islamic imagery and cultural elements but the main cast does not include any Middle Eastern or North African actors.

One of the most important figures in the world of Dune is the Mahdi, also known as “Lisan al-Gaib” or “Voice from the Outer World”. A character so explicitly influenced by Shia theology and yet the role of the character that is suspected of being the “Mahdi” was given to Timothee Chalamet, a French American actor.

Moreover, the character who confronted him about that suspicion was played by Zendaya, who couldn’t even correctly pronounce the name “Mahdi”. In fact, no character in the movie was able to correctly pronounce any Arabic word such as “Mahdi” or “Lisan al-Gaib”.

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In a lot of cases, when people try to point out the colourism or misrepresentation of any group in TV and film, their critics arm themselves with the argument that an actor’s job description should permit them to play any part.

In the same Piers Morgan interview with Bassem Youssef, Morgan gave examples of Hollywood misrepresentation such as Bryan Cranston playing a disabled character in The Upside and Eddie Redmayne playing a transgender woman in The Danish Girl, then seemingly mockingly giving the example of Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead role in Prince of Persia despite not being Persian “or a prince”.

These critics fail to see the value of accurate representation and the influence it can have on the audiences they are trying to represent especially when these audiences are marginalized groups who still face stereotypes in their depictions on screen. These critics are often individuals who have rarely faced misrepresentation in the past. Piers Morgan is a good example; white men have never faced misrepresentation in Hollywood.

Racism in Arab Media

Hollywood doesn’t lack cases of Arab misrepresentation and colourism.

However, one quick glance into some productions from the Arab world and one can notice that racism has in fact always been facing us in our screens.

Productions littered with mockery and derogatory language against black Arabs and black African migrants have become so normalised that they often go unnoticed.

"Whilst it is true Hollywood has begun to stray from stereotyping and only casting Arab actors and actresses as terrorist men and defenceless women, it still has a long way ahead of it to reach proper Arab representation"

The Egyptian comedy series Azmi we Ashgan (Azmi and Ashgan) had the lead actors frequently don blackface throughout its run as well as portraying black people as illiterate servants. The Kuwaiti comedy series Block Ghashmara (The Block of Jokes) had an entire episode on Sudanese people being lazy and cynical portrayed by actors in blackface.

Racism is sometimes presented more subtly through throwaway lines masked as jokes with characters laughing after hearing them.

Criticisms and exchanges regarding racism in Arab production are usually limited to social media but fail to create a society-wide discussion. Of course, Arab and Egyptian productions being racist and misrepresentative of black and African people does not excuse Queen Cleopatra or any other Hollywood production.

It does, however, call into question if the outrage against Queen Cleopatra being larger and more vocal than any previous case of Arab misrepresentation is a result of racial discrimination against black people.

During her interview with Variety, Gharavi pointed out how the 2005 HBO TV show Rome featured Cleopatra being played by white English actress Lyndsey Marshal and depicted Cleopatra as “a sleazy, dissipated drug addict” yet there was no outrage or widespread criticism from Egyptians (or Arabs).

Conversely, Queen Cleopatra was served with a lawsuit by Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary to shut down the production after only the trailer was released.

After its release, it was served with a second lawsuit by the legal adviser and attorney of the Culture Minister, Essam Khalaf, demanding the series be permanently removed from the Netflix platform under the guise of not “obtaining the approval of the Antiquities and Culture ministries regarding the embodiment of a historical Egyptian figure, and not obtaining a permit to film works containing archaeological features in Egypt.”

Additionally, Khalaf and the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri, both considered this depiction an insult and falsification of Egyptian history.

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Whilst it is true Hollywood has begun to stray from stereotyping and only casting Arab actors and actresses as terrorist men and defenceless women, it still has a long way ahead of it to reach proper Arab representation.

While the outrage towards Queen Cleopatra may have been a culmination of a long history of misrepresentation and not just racial discrimination, Egyptian and Arab filmmakers, especially those who were exceptionally vocal against the casting decisions in Queen Cleopatra, also need to start practising proper representation and questioning racist stereotypes they incorporate in their productions.

Mahdi El Amin is a Lebanese writer and activist