Black Cleopatra, director Tina Gharavi talks about the controversy over her docu-series

The director of the docu-series “Queen Cleopatra” speaks, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith and at the center of numerous controversies due to the choice of making the queen of Egypt with black skin. Tina Gharavi has entrusted the US magazine Variety with the own words after a cloud of criticism has risen these days, just after the publication of the first official trailer

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After the countless criticisms that have arisen in recent days following the publication of the official trailer of Queen Cleopatrathe director of the show has decided to speak.
Tina Gharavi, who directed the episodes of the docu-series produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, entrusted the US magazine variety his own words after a cloud of controversy engulfed the production of Queen Cleopatra and also Netflix. Even the platform that hosts the show, in fact, has been hit by harsh criticism, including those of an Egyptian lawyer who filed a lawsuit against the streamer, also asking his government to take serious measures and perhaps think of closing Netflix in Egypt.

At the center of the controversy is the choice to make the queen of Egypt with black skin. Exclusively for variety, Tina Gharavi asks the world: “What annoys you so much about a black Cleopatra?” She adds: “It is more likely that Cleopatra looked more like our actress than she looked like Elizabeth Taylor”. In the series, the character of Cleopatra is played by the Afro-descendant actress Adele James.

The story of the soothsayer

Tina Gharavi writes in her post on variety: “Last summer I was living in Venice Beach and had decided, due to the insistence of a friend, to consult a fortune teller. Always a skeptic, I accepted for fun. What the fortune teller said made my eyes roll: “I am not saying you are Cleopatra but somehow you share the story of her and you are connected.” Less than a month later, I received a call from a production company making Jada Pinkett Smith’s ‘African Queens’ and was subsequently hired to direct four episodes of a dramatic documentary about the controversial leader’s life.

Queen Cleopatra.  Cr.  Netflix © 2023


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The director: “I felt that Elizabeth Taylor was not the right image”

Tina Gharavi goes on to say, “I remember as a child watching Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. I was fascinated, but even then I felt the picture of her wasn’t right. Was her skin really that white? With this new production, could I find the answers about Cleopatra’s legacy and free her from the grip that Hollywood had placed on her image?” asks the director, born in Iran and Persian.
She herself points out that Cleopatra’s legacy was “attributed once to the Greeks, once to the Macedonians and once to the Persians”.



Queen Cleopatra, controversy over Jada Pinkett’s docu for black Cleopatra

Cleopatra played by a black actress is a ‘political act’

Write exclusively on variety: “The known facts are that his Macedonian Greek family – the Ptolemaic lineage – intermarried with the West Asian Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the possibility that she was white highly unlikely. After 300 years, surely, we can safely say that Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are a generation from Greece. By doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra played by a black actress. To me, the idea that people had been so incredibly wrong before her—historically, from Theda Bara to Monica Bellucci, and recently, with Angelina Jolie and Gal Gadot in the running to play her—meant we had to do it even better. The hunt was on to find the right artist to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century.”

“Why do so many people want Cleopatra to be white?”

Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be black? Why do so many people want her to be white? “Her closeness to her candor seems to value her, and for some Egyptians it seems really important,” Gharavi points out.
“After much discussion 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 look like Adele than she ever is Elizabeth Taylor,” declares the director of Queen Cleopatra.
Also known as the HBO series Rome portrayed “one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a squalid, dissipated drug addict, but Egypt didn’t seem to care. Where was the indignation then?”. Instead playing her as a black woman has created such a cloud of protest that the production of this show is blown away.



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Online hatred has invested the director

“During filming, I became the target of a huge online hate campaign. The Egyptians have accused me of ‘covering up’ and ‘stealing’ their history. Some have threatened to ruin my career,” says the director.
He concludes by asking the question “So, Cleopatra was black?”. And she answers like this: “We don’t know for sure, but we can be sure that she was not white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism and the internalized white supremacy Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.”

The director absolutely does not regret what she has done, on the contrary: she is proud of it

“I am proud to be with Queen Cleopatra – a reinvented Cleopatra – and with the team that made this show. We have reimagined a world over 2,000 years ago where once there was an exceptional woman who ruled. I would like to draw a direct line from her to the Egyptian women who rose up during the Arab uprisings and to my Persian sisters who are rising up against a brutal regime today. Never before has it been so important to have female leaders: black or white”, these are the words of the director Tina Gharavi.



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Tina Gharavi’s career

Although haters have sworn to ruin her career, Tina Gharavi is very promising as a filmmaker. And she already has considerable successes behind her.

She has been nominated for BAFTAs and Sundance. Her debut I am Nasrinewas nominated for a BAFTA in 2013. His upcoming feature-length documentary, Tribalism is Killing Us, which is the result of a visit to the Angolan state prison, will be released later this year. Gharavi teaches filmmaking around the world and is a recipient of a fellowship from MIT. She was elected to the BAFTAs in 2017.

What sparked the controversy in the Queen Cleopatra trailer?

This controversial portrait caused controversy and sparked a lot of outrage in Egypt. Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary argues that such portrayal is historically inaccurate and highly offensive to the Egyptian people. According to the newspaper Egypt Independent, the aforementioned lawyer asked the Egyptian government to take all legal measures against those responsible for the documentary project. The streaming platform itself has also been implicated in the lawsuit, for its participation in “this crime”.
In the trailer we see (and hear) an expert who recalls the origin of the queen in the family of the Macedonian general Ptolemy in the service of Alexander the Great, but another colleague immediately contradicts her. “My mother always said: don’t pay attention to what they tell you at school. Cleopatra was black”, these are the words that are sparking countless controversies.
In the series the character of Cleopatra is played by a black actress: Adele James.
Underlying everything is a long-debated topic at an academic level: Cleopatra’s ethnicity, at the center of numerous academic discussions. According to several historians, at least at the time of the queen’s great-grandfather, the family was still entirely of Macedonian blood.
Queen Cleopatra, written by Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji, is part of a larger project that is close to Jada Pinkett Smith’s heart: a docu cycle on African Queens. This docu-series about Cleopatra will have four episodes of 45 minutes each. “We don’t often see or hear stories of black queens, so it’s very important for me, as well as my daughter and my community, to get to know them because there are so many,” said Will Smith’s wife.
“Cleopatra is a queen we know a lot about, but not her truth. She was portrayed as sexual, excessive and corrupt. In reality she was a strategist, an intellect, a force of nature who fought to protect her kingdom” adds Jada Pinkett Smith Netflix instead is more vague and, in the caption accompanying the official trailer of the series, writes the following: “From executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith comes a new documentary series that explores the lives of important and iconic queens This season will feature Cleopatra, the most famous, powerful and misunderstood woman in the world, a daring queen whose beauty and romances came to overshadow her true asset: her intellect. Cleopatra has been the subject of much scholarly debate, often ignored by Hollywood. Now our series re-evaluates this fascinating part of her story.”

You can watch the official trailer for the docu-series below Queen Cleopatra.



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