1682076862 Queen Cleopatra Director Speaks Out What bothers you so much

‘Queen Cleopatra’ Director Speaks Out: “What bothers you so much about a black Cleopatra?” (EXCLUSIVE)

Queen Cleopatra

“It’s more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”

Last summer I was living in Venice Beach and due to a friend’s insistence I decided to see a fortune teller. Me, always the skeptic but a game for a laugh, agreed to play along. What the fortune teller said made me roll my eyes, “I’m not saying you’re Cleopatra, but somehow you share your story and are connected.”

Less than a month later, I received a call from a production company producing Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens and was hired to direct four episodes of a documentary about the controversial leader’s life. The joke was mine.

I remember watching Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra as a kid. I was intrigued, but even then I felt like the picture wasn’t right. Was her skin really that white? With this new production, could I find answers to Cleopatra’s legacy and free her from the stranglehold Hollywood had placed on her image?

Born in Iran, I am Persian, and Cleopatra’s legacy was sooner or later attributed to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians. The known facts are that her Macedonian-Greek family – of Ptolemaic descent – was married to the West African Seleucid dynasty and lived in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations removed from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her becoming white rather unlikely. After 300 years we can safely say that Cleopatra was Egyptian. She wasn’t more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are a generation from Greece.

As I researched, I realized what a political act it would be to have Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress. To 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 got it even more right had to. The search for the right actor to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century was underway.

Director Tina Gharavi

Why wouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanized sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her closeness to white seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems really important.

After much struggle and countless auditions, we found in Adele James an actress who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty but also her strength. What historians can confirm is that Cleopatra is more likely to have looked like Adele than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.

As production neared, I realized the scale and political nature of this job. Getting things right was important, but also finding a way to tell the story with humanism and nuance: the last thing we needed was another Cleopatra divorced from her womanhood and just sexualized her power. The HBO series Rome portrayed one of the smartest, most sophisticated and most powerful women in the world as a seedy, debauched drug addict, but Egypt didn’t seem to mind. Where was the outrage back then? But depict her as Black? So.

Maybe it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as black, but that I’ve asked the Egyptians to see themselves as African and they’re angry with me for that. I agree.

During filming, I became the target of a massive online hate campaign. The Egyptians accused me of “blackening” and “stealing” their history. Some threatened to ruin my career – what I was trying to tell them was ridiculous. I ruined it very well for myself, thank you very much! No amount of argument or reminder that there had been no Arab invasions in Cleopatra’s time seemed to stem the flood of ridiculous comments. Amir wrote to me in his bedroom in Cairo to make a serious appeal: “Cleopatra was Greek!” Oh Lawd! Why would that be good for you, Amir? you are egyptian

So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be sure 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.

Above all, we need to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her and more about who we are.

It’s almost as if we didn’t know that misogyny still affects us today. We must free our imaginations and boldly create a world in which to explore our historical characters without fearing the complexity that comes with their portrayal. I am proud to stand with Queen Cleopatra – a reinvented Cleopatra – and the team that made this. We have reimagined a world over 2,000 years ago, once ruled by an extraordinary woman. I want 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 rebelling against a brutal regime today. Never before has it been more important to have female leaders: white or black.

Queen Cleopatra debuts May 10 on Netflix. Gharavi is a BAFTA and Sundance nominated filmmaker. Her debut I Am Nasrine was nominated for a BAFTA in 2013. Her next documentary, Tribalism is Killing Us, which grew out of her visit to Angola’s state prison, will be released later this year. Gharavi teaches filmmaking around the world and was awarded an MIT grant. She was elected to the BAFTA in 2017.