What’s happening? The second season of Netflix and Jada Pinkett Smith’s documentary series African Queens, titled Queen Cleopatra, has drawn ire from critics and audiences alike. This primarily comes from its casting of black actress Adele James in the title role. Many are calling it a false representation of history — created specifically to “represent black women” — on top of simply being a poorly-made show. It currently boasts a 15-percent rating from critics and a 3-percent rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, possibly making it the lowest-rated TV series ever on the platform.
Where was Cleopatra really from? Queen Cleopatra was born in Egypt but was of Macedonian Greek ancestry. There is not sufficient information on her mother or paternal grandmother’s ancestry to suggest that either woman was black. Instead, evidence points to Cleopatra being either pure Macedonian Greek or partially Egyptian, with no room for any black African blood.
Part of a trend: Having non-white actors play roles that were historically white, which critics refer to as “racebending,” has been controversial for some time. Storytellers most commonly “race-bend” white characters with the stated goal of promoting diversity in a film or show, prioritizing the progressive idealism of diversity rather than artistic quality. The casting of Halle Bailey in the upcoming Little Mermaid live-action remake is another well-known and contentious example.
The bottom line: The many examples of racebending and subsequent backlash seem to indicate that audiences would prefer on-screen adaptations of characters that are historically accurate and true to the original appearance of the characters.