Netflixable? Docudrama series “Queen Cleopatra” plays “her Truth,” but lacks Gravitas and Authority

With women’s rights and leadership role in society under assualt in many corners of the world, the time seems right for a fresh look at Egypt’s “Queen Cleopatra,” an “iconic” woman “who bowed to no man,” as producer/narrator Jada Pinkett Smith says in the opening narration of the new Netflix docu-drama series.

The historical record leaves little doubt. Cleopatra she was smart, cunning even, a shrewd operator in a politically-turbulent time.

“Vixen or strategist, collaborator of maverick,” the actress and podcaster/influencer Smith wonders in that narration? Whatever “her truth,” this much is undeniable. She “walked through the sandstorm of history and left footprints so deep that no man could ever erase them.”

This four part biography — tracing her from the day she took the pharoanic throne with her “husband/brother” Ptolemy XIII through her trials, alliances and dalliances with first Julius Caesar and then his protege Mark Antony (whom she married) and to her fall and death — recreates the key moments in her life and career in a modern vernacular with a British headed by Adele James, a Black British actress who backs up a central assertion of this series.

Cleopatra wasn’t just a tough, brilliant woman. She wasn’t just “Egyptian.” She was Black. And rolling this out now not only refutes “traditional” Western depictions of the queen (Liz Taylor et al), it beats the big screen “Cleopatra” starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot of all people to the punch by a year or more, Egyptian lawsuits be damned.

That assertion of her racial heritage, like much of what’s in this account of Cleopatra’s life, seems perfectly defensible. Let’s bring out the historians, air that thesis out and let young Cleo tame the epic Afro she’s wearing when we meet her into something more regal when she dons the crown.

But that’s where “Queen Cleopatra” trips up.

The Oprah-acolyte Smith’s assertion that this is “Her Truth” is telling. So is the first assertion of Cleopatra’s race introduced in the series.

“My grandma told me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was Black!”

Oh really? Professor Shelley P. Haley is the retired Hamilton U. academic who says that, and who has to know granny isn’t exactly an unimpeachable authority on the matter. It’s not the last “Oh really?” this “history” runs up against.

“Everyone can imagine her in their own way,” another of the six-and-only-six experts appearing on camera here asserts.Oh really?

Still, the series does a decent job of making the case that since we don’t know who Cleopatra’s mother was, only that her father was the Macedonian descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy XII Auletes. So it’s possible and indeed acceptable, based on the little contemporary art and few contemporary accounts describing her, that she was of Nubian/Macedonian (Greek) descent and darker skinned than your average Egyptian of the day.

But the approach here is limited, more History Channel (“History Channel lite”) in its authority than your typical PBS or BBC produced history.

The historians and authors — one is a “PhD candidate” — are almost all women and their use of “emojis” and “ghosted” and other Twitter vernacular in making sweeping statements about “the Egyptian people LOVED her” and “the Roman elite were DISGUSTED by her” can’t help but make them come off as lightweights.

The titles that list their credentials leave off where most of them teach, giving the impression of the producers cherry-picking “performers” without necessarily having the imprimatur of “tops in their field.”

That’s VERY History Channel, BTW.

The settings for the reenactments are decent if inexpensive. The reenactments themselves are a tad stiff, occasionally perfunctory, not quite “The Tudors” sexual, but with the stilted (Brit-accented) Speech of History sprinkled with more approachable, common usages.

“You can’t share my bed and LIE to me!”

While “Queen Cleopatra” can be relied upon to relate her Greatest Hits — the smuggled-in-to-an-audience-with-Caesar-rolled-up-in-a-rug business “probably never happened,” but hell, let’s re-enact anway — it lacks the gravitas to come off as anything that truly rewrites her story.

The scripts set up a thesis — that she was an agent of her own destiny, not just swept along with it, that she was accomplished, learned and cunning and Black — and never quite closes the deal.

If you’re going to make a Big Assertion about her race, even one that’s more generally accepted now than ever before, why not hunt down more historians to talk about that? If Rome was “DISGUSTED” by her, why doesn’t one of these academics ponder the notion that plebian Rome might have been, you know, racist?

Limiting your scope, cheaping out on the research and then cutting corners on the least expensive part of the production — “experts” — just makes us wonder if you had trouble finding lots of accomplished historians to back you up. And no, they don’t have to be old, white men to be “accomplished.” I was waiting for that one voice pushing back against this or that, and it never comes.

Make your assertion, then make your case, covering as many sides of the debate as possible. Because the rest of us aren’t going to take grandma’s or Jada Pinkett Smith’s word for it, even if we never miss an installment of her podcast.

Rating: TV-14, violence, sexual situations

Cast: Adele James, Craig Russell, John Partridge, Andira Crichlow, Callum Banforth, narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith.

Credits: Created/produced by Ben Goold, and Jada Pinkett Smith and Jimmy Abounouom. A Netflix release.

Running time: 4 episodes @50 minutes each.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Netflixable? Docudrama series “Queen Cleopatra” plays “her Truth,” but lacks Gravitas and Authority

  1. Peter says:

    Kleopatra is shown as black. Her siblings are black and her father was black too. If Netflix documentary is right, it means Ptolemy dynasty were black. Respectively we can make a conclusion the ancient Macedonians were black. Maybe Alexander was black too or at least has some mixed origin

    • Roger Moore says:

      Save for her sister, her siblings are depicted as lighter-skinned and more obviously of mixed race, as Cleopatra possibly was. Not probably. Possibly. Nobody’s suggesting Alexander, who conquered Egypt 300 years earlier, was anything but Macedonian. Nor was the general who founded the Ptolemic line.

  2. James says:

    Cleopatra was a Greek Macedonian.. the product of a ptolemaic dynasty that was one of the most inbred Royal dynasties in the history of mankind.

    • Roger Moore says:

      But, as has been researched and speculated about in recent decades, we don’t know with any certainty who her mother was. Soooo.

      • Kimberly says:

        We have a pretty good idea it was Cleopatra V. She more than likely died in childbirth, though. She was who was married to her father, so.. 1+1=2, right?

      • Backcountry164 says:

        So what?? What we do know is that in 275 years no other Ptolomaic Pharoah married an Egyptian. In all that time there only one know Egyptian mistress. Also, we know that Egyptians aren’t black. There is literally nothing to indicate she may have been black.

      • Pip says:

        It was probably Cleopatra V, as that article states. The Ptolemies were a Greco-Macedonian royal family ruling over what was a colonial empire. One of Cleopatra’s sisters had a mother who may have been partially Sub-Saharan African – probably was in fact. However, she was born after Cleopatra V died, the sisters did not share a mother.

        The assertion that Cleopatra VII “was black” is not “more generally accepted” today. It’s “generally rejected”.

        Here’s the real kicker – Cleopatra herself claimed to have NO Egyptian blood. So what does that tell you? That she’s be scandalised and insulted at the way she’s depicted here.

      • Roger Moore says:

        Cite something. Whole lot of people popping off here. At least Jada found a few academics who would stick their necks out to back the series’ assertion up…to a degree.
        “Generally rejected” begs that you prove it, as this assertion has been drifting around, in and out of legitimacy for 20 plus years.

  3. Kookoo says:

    Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic family was inbred because they wanted to protect their bloodline. They were ok with mixing with middle easterners and those with Persian ancestry. They admired the former Persian empire. Unfortunately they despised all other ethnicities. The chance she was part black is slim to none. Here’s my message to Americans of African ancestry: your ancestors came from west Africa which had a great history of magnificent empires. Embrace your great ancestors and history of west Africa and leave Egypt and eastern Africa alone.

    • Rod says:

      blackness is not nor was ever limited to western Africans and their descendants though.
      The lineage of descandants of enslaved racialized black people is kinda irrelevant. Blackness as it derives from the europeans who created the term applies to all Africans of varied hues. But even further do we declassify western Europeans less white than southern or eastern? No. So if we are looking to see the past in a present lense then..if her mom was indeed egyptian..yes she was part black…if she was a greek inbreed…she was greek. And white..
      Now if from the perspective of those who existed back then…I highly doubt any of them would identify as anything racialized…simply their ethnic identity. So in one breath its kinda unrealistic to label them racially at all

  4. backcountry164 says:

    The Ptolemies considered themselves to be Greek. Why does any modern reimagining even matter?? Why are we debating a historical fact when there was no doubt at the time??

  5. Janet Darby says:

    Ok, I wasn’t going to comment, but somehow the writing comes off as disingenuous. Do people really know what her heritage was or her ethnicity? African descendants have basically been erased from history or lightened up to be palatable. People are always in an uproar about something. Tell the story! People can use license to tell a story. It’s done all the time. And please, tell me that much of what has been taught in schools, churches, or the educational systems are correct! If people are so inclined to carry on about the movie, why do we celebrate a white washed Jesus? Instead of black/colored Jesus?
    People discuss so much nonsense, but if you’re going to tackle anything tackle that.

    • Roger Moore says:

      You know, there’s a link in the review to a Wiki page on the “History” of “Cleopatra is Black.” Near the bottom of the review. Worth reading, not as a primary source but to point the curious to more reading.
      It’s all a question of where one thinks the Burden of Proof lies. A dynasty built on some of the most infamous inbreeding in ancient history, and somehow — because we don’t really know who her mother was — there’s room for doubt about Cleopatra’s race.
      Do you think it’s up to the filmmakers to prove this against-the-historical grain assertion, or up to historians to prove she couldn’t have been truly African, or even half African/Nubian whatever?
      While it’s hilarious to read all the armchair assertions of certitude in the comments here, it’s also strange to consider why any group or lone “researcher” would claim her as Black.
      There COULD have been an interesting chapter in the series in investigating why Professor Shelley P. Haley’s “grandma” believed Cleopatra was Black. Because THAT thread of belief is modern, and CAN be traced to the very people who first asserted it and the ways this claim has been addressed over the past 150 years or so. But the four part series did not do that.
      Here’s the link again.

  6. Ahmed Hosny says:

    I am Egyptian. This is a movie that lies and slanders the history of Egypt. Cleopatra was Macedonian, not African.

  7. Smitty says:

    This “writer” is clearly obsessed with race. No one knows Cleopatra’s race and most agree that it’s plausible that she was of mixed race. This docu-series had an actress of mixed race playing her but the writer took issue with implications that she was ‘Black’. Guess he/she subscribes to the Jim Crow era 1 drop rule. This article is a disgrace and reminiscent of 1950 racist dog whistles.

    • Roger Moore says:

      Cite what you’re talking about before trotting out the “racist” card. There’s nothing racist in that review. The weight of academic opinion is that this assertion is bull. I provide links backing that up. I give the series all the benefit of the doubt it warrants. There’s uncertainty and a tiny bit of room for doubt about her race. But what is CERTAIN is the exact moment Black non-academics started the “Cleopatra was Black” claim. You know, people with a BELIEF and no facts to back them up. People like you. It dates back 100 years, and has been academically slapped down all sorts of ways. Remember, “Smitty,” the race card is too often played when the facts don’t back the person playing it up. That would be YOU.

      • Rod says:

        Cleopatra was neither…black or white…unless there is evidence greeks or viewed skin color as their identity…
        As far as egyptian lineage (if her mom was indeed non Macedonian egyptian). Then yes it is understandable why racialized black people view her as a stolen identity, because the europeans who invented our modern racialized social structure labled Africa black or negroid with varying degrees by shade and region…but v certainly not white..(also where we get colorism from). Prior to that nobody in egypt identified as black…so now people want to self-identify as white and we know why…because its considered the top of social pecking order. And even an insult to some to be considered black or less than. So don’t ignore the landscape of why this debate is even an issue for some Africans who don’t want to be racialized as black vs white.

  8. Dee says:

    You are perpetuating a falsehood. Cleopatra was Greek. Definitely not black. It’s black-washing and now it became the norm. Whitewashing is frowned upon and correctly so. But to counter it with black washing is not the answer. We know better today.
    For sure there are amazing black queens. To choose one that’s not – you are insulting the population you want to uplift. As if you are saying “we couldn’t find any black powerful woman so we borrowed one”.
    I’m not buying this article.
    And please!!! Don’t tell me I’m raciest… I don’t have to agree with your “documentary“. And not agreeing with it does not make me one!

    • Roger Moore says:

      Dee, don’t be a DumBEE.
      Read the GD review before expressing an opinion on it. I express plenty of skepticism in that review, even link to debunking web pages. You don’t appear to have expertise in the field, just an opinion. Which you’re expressing without having read the review of a series which I PANNED. Don’t want to be called a “racist?” I have no idea about that. But when you’re popping off without having READ THE REVIEW you’re expressing an opinion on, maybe sitting this one out was your smarter play.

  9. John Fitznorman says:

    Sub Saharan African culture and history has been neglected, denigrated, and largely ignored. In the past, this was mostly done by very pale skinned male academics. But now, thanks to our progressive society, we can add women of color to the list of those who denigrate and ignore sub Saharan African history and culture! What a time to be alive, what progress we have made!

    Ah, to take a colonial, slave owning white dynasty and rebrand it as empowerment! I cannot wait for them to cast Idris Elba in the next Hitler movie. But this movie is gonna tell HIS TRUTH. What a time.

  10. Mary A Norris says:

    Here is a thought. Rather than this …Make a film about the Black Pharaohs of Egypt!! Yes there was a dynasty that was Nubian!! They had an amazing queen!!! This dynasty had a great story to tell, and I would be overjoyed to see it on the screen. They overran Upper Egypt, and ruled in their own right. I was reading about this Dynasty, man , they were fascinating.

  11. Jeffrey Weisenfeld says:

    Not a word about dna testing of ancient Egyptian mummies.
    In 2017 and again in an update in 2021, the Max Planck Institute conducted dna studies of ancient Egyptian mummies ranging over 4000 years of Egyptian history, of over 100 mummies, and from multiple sites. Both studies indicated that the ancient Egyptians had very little sub Saharan dna. Modern Egyptians were found to be very similar, except have more sub Saharan dna than the ancients. The ancients were likely not Swedish, Japanese or Black.
    How can the issue be discussed without even reference to the best evidence we have.
    Follow the science unless you don’t like the results l.

  12. Slim Whitman says:

    Thanks for the skepticism. Using afro centric “academics” to make a case on anything let alone history, is like relying on Q anon believers for the news. When I hear the tired argument “but we don’t know who her mother was”, why is the default, she must have been black? She could’ve have been a number of women but the likelihood she’d be anything but another Macedonian are next to nil.

    The Ptolemic dynasties aside from being incestuous, were famously xenophobic, prohibiting non Greeks, except servants, tradesmen and guards from entering Alexandria. They had nothing but enmity towards the Nubians to the south. If Cleopatra were anything but of Hellenistic ilk, the Romans being the fastidious and copious record keepers they were, would’ve mentioned her sultry appearance somewhere in the record.

    But we need to go no further than the contemporaneous coins and busts that show her to be nothing more than a Macedonian, albeit with a curly head dress fashionable at the time, that afro centrist’s claim is proof positive of her black roots. Ms Pinkett, in all her sisterhood girl power profusions, lacks the historical honesty to ask, why do or should black Americans be so covetous of Cleopatra as a fine example of one of their own? Although smart, manipulative, seductive and beguiling, her greatest accomplishment was leading Egypt to ruin. An utter diplomatic, romantic and military failure, her career was punctuated like a sledgehammer at Actium.

  13. The Grand Lord of Polecats says:

    Cleopatra being black is quite hard to picture. Consider that all images and sculptures/busts created by people who were alive when she was depicted her as a fair skinned, possibly a bit ginger Macedonian woman. Not a hint of blackness is shown from people who may have actually seen her. She may of been of Macedonian decent but the wider Egyptians are all of Arab descent, not black African. Now consider, how many people at Netflix have actually seen her in the flesh? 🖕

    • Roger Moore says:

      Just. Like. You. In other words? So long as we’re “considering?”

      • The Grand Lord of Polecats says:

        Sorry, but I’m not sure what you’re saying? (Just. Like. You. In other words? So long as we’re “considering?”) So are you insulting me? Insinuating I’m a fair skinned, bit ginger, ancient Macedonian woman? Black?

      • Roger Moore says:

        I’d expect somebody who doesn’t see writing “Now consider, how many people at Netflix have actually seen her in the flesh?” as the stupidest comment — including the profane and personal attack laden ones (blocked from publication) — anyone has made about this review of this series.
        “Consider” how many times YOU’VE “actually seen her in the flesh.”
        You haven’t “actually seen her in the flesh” either, Mr. Self-Aware. Get it now, “Polecat?”

  14. I enjoyed the Docu-series

    Great work Jada and Cast. Cleopatra was African descent and not European. This was a powerful depiction of her life and legacy.

  15. Tex says:

    “So it’s possible and indeed acceptable, based on the little contemporary art and few contemporary accounts describing her, that she was of Nubian/Macedonian (Greek) descent.”

    What contemporary art and accounts describing her do you refer if I may ask?

    The only description of Cleopatra’s physical look comes from the Roman poet Lucan (1st century AD). He states that Cleopatra’s skin is as white as snow:
    “Candida nec niveo contingens aequora mammae, Translucent niveam subnectens gausapa Sydon.” (Lucan, Pharsalia 10, 125-145)
    Lucan, in Latin, uses words like “candida” (white), “niveo” (snow), and “niveam” (snow) to describe the color of Cleopatra’s breasts.

    As for art, there are 5 frescos from Herculaneum and Pompeii and two cameos (Hermitage and British Museums) believed to be her. In all those Cleopatra is represented with a very white skin and red hair.

    Also busts and statues show clearly “Greek features”. Perhaps you want to clarify to which contemporary art and descriptions you refer to.

    One more thing: Alexandria it was a Greek city but it was indeed multicultural. Aside from the Greek people, who was the majority of the population, there were significant communities of Jews and Egyptians. Records also mention relevant Roman and Syrian communities. These were the people living in Alexandria.

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