Jada Pinkett Smith blackwashes Cleopatra
Cleopatra. The very name conjures up images of a sultry temptress who ensnared the most powerful men in her world and died for love. Among many other actresses, she was portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, a casting choice now decried as “whitewashing.” In entertainment, whitewashing is when white actors play a non-white character. Fair enough. A real person should certainly be portrayed by an actor of the same race. That’s only reasonable.
At least, it seems to be reasonable considering the horror expressed at Mickey Rooney, a little white guy, playing Mr. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn’s oversexed Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Then there’s Gods of Egypt, where mythical Egyptian deities were portrayed by white actors. And there’s...no, the list is far too long to continue sampling the complaints about white actors playing non-white fictional characters.
Image: Contemporary bust of Cleopatra. Public Domain.
Enter Jada Pinkett Smith, a woman who should surely be sensitive to the portrayal of genuine people by actors who do not represent their race. Certainly, she’s had plenty to spout about racism on her show Red Table Talk. I suppose I should be past being surprised at hypocrisy from a liberal, but Smith manages to surprise me. She is the executive producer of a Netflix show, African Queens. It’s both praiseworthy and interesting to portray African women who have ruled countries. However, Smith has chosen to co-opt Cleopatra, a woman who was neither African nor black.
The Egyptians are not amused and are suing Netflix for portraying Cleopatra as black. Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary has filed a complaint with the public prosecutor, alleging that a black actress portraying Cleopatra is visual material and content that violates Egypt’s media laws. He also claims that Netflix is attempting to “promote the Afrocentric thinking... which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”
Mr. al-Semary may have a point. Cleopatra was a Macedonian, the descendant of Ptolemy, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Respected Egyptologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass has stated, “This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black.... Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black.”
In other words, Smith is guilty of blackwashing. She has no problem with having a black actress play a woman who was not black. She doesn’t want racism against blacks, but she has no problem with racism against anyone who is not black, even when that person is one of the most legendary queens of all time. Whatever else she was, history has shown that Cleopatra was proud. If she were alive today, she’d probably want to throw her asp in Jada Pinkett Smith’s face.
Pandra Selivanov is the author of Future Slave, a story about a 21st century black teenager who goes back in time and becomes a slave in the old South.