Although the series is an attempt to glorify Cleopatra’s legacy, the series fail to show how important Cleopatra’s rule is to the Egyptian people…
By Seyi Lasisi
“Her legend has been retold for millennials. But few know the real woman. Her truth,” says the narrative voiceover in the first episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Queen Cleopatra. It is easier to understand why there are “few” people who know about Queen Cleopatra: she is a woman. African history is constantly moving towards the fringes of extinction. The custodians of history are dying. This instills a sense of loss of African history in the consciousness of Africans. Thus, for a patriarchy–dominated society, where women are still considered less important, despite their monumental achievements, it’s easier to understand why their history is barely told.
The history of African women faces a more cruel and immediate eraser. Although the lives of these African women leaders offer a defiant challenge to society’s existing masculine order, their histories are often subdued. The reiteration of their stories is on the margin compared to their male counterparts whose history is often elevated. It is this paucity of cinematic documentation of the lives of African female rulers that Smith is curbing with her documentary series. Queen Cleopatra is a continuation of the documentation effort Smith started with African Queens: Queen Njinga.
Smith’s Queen Cleopatra is a dramatised narration of the political life of an Egyptian matriarch. The four-episode documentary series tells the story of Queen Cleopatra (Adele James). The docudrama series chooses an interesting beginning: the death of Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII (Louis Emerick). Ptolemy XII’s death inspires a drastic change in the life of young Cleopatra. Prior to her father’s death, she shows intense interest in literature, art, and science. She is constantly domiciled in the Library of Alexandria absorbing knowledge from various world cultures of that epoch. The series, in reenacted sequence, retells the deeds, compromise, and political decisions Queen Cleopatra took to maintain Egypt’s continued sovereignty from Rome. The documentary reenacts the popular romance that existed among Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony, Caesar’s trusted general. Despite Cleopatra’s significance, she inspires hatred from a faction of Roman nobles who, answering to their masculine instincts, see Cleopatra as a femme fatale. Cicero (Simon Kunz) is openly opposed to Cleopatra.
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Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar (John Partridge) and Mark Anthony (Craig Russell) is propelled by the need to form an alliance. This transactional relationship among Caesar, Anthony, and Cleopatra reflects how monarchs sign pacts and form friendships to safeguard their position in the face of hostility. Although Cleopatra’s political relationship with Anthony has a semblance of truthful emotional connection, the choices they both take are inspired by personal, masked as political, agenda. Anthony, to assuage the enmity between him and Octavian (James Marlowe) marries Octavian’s sister. Cleopatra’s relationship with these Roman soldiers portrays the personality of the African noble class who wants to ensure that power is retained in their lineage. Their alliance with external forces is often necessitated by personal over national gain. For Cleopatra, her relationship is influenced by political and military gain. Even for Caesar and Anthony, their partnership with Cleopatra is necessitated by economical, political, and financial gains.
There is an unwritten manual that guides relationship between royal siblings. In African Queens: Queen Njinga, Njinga’s (Adesuwa Oni) ascension to the throne is preceded by the numerous royal carnages. Every possible opposition must be subdued. The same pattern is observed in Queen Cleopatra. Although it’s not historically certain if Cleopatra ordered the assassination of her co-ruler and brother, Ptolemy XIII (Calum Balmforth), the death of Arsinoe (Andira Crichlow), her sister, is imprinted on Cleopatra’s name. This royal sibling rivalry, while it’s seen as “normal” and a conventional behaviour in these two ancient societies, Egypt and Angola, indicates how the African ruling class guarantees their assertion to the ruling of society. The rivalry between the royal siblings always places their subjects in danger. Factions are formed. War ensued. The economy enters a descent. As indicated by these two documentaries, Queen Cleopatra, and African Queens: Queen Njinga, succession to the throne isn’t reflective of the collective will of the people. It is the personal wish of the intended ruler and their blood-letting pursuit of that ambition.
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A controversy that motivated responses from the quarters of the Egyptian government preceded Queen Cleopatra‘s debut on Netflix. This controversy is anchored around Queen Cleopatra’s skin colour and what seemed to be the deliberate choice to cast her as black. In the official response to the controversy, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long statement at the end of April 2023 stressing that “Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.” The show’s producers issued a response to the official statement. Queen Cleopatra’s producers insisted that they “intentionally decided to depict her [Cleopatra] of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.” As Haythem Guesmi concludes in his essay, “The Two Africas,” the reaction to casting Queen Cleopatra reflects the divisive politics. “It has more to do with the divisive politics of African representation in black American cultural production,” Guesmi concludes.
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Queen Cleopatra further explores the themes and motifs that have woven their way through Smith’s earlier documentary series, Queen Njinga: the complexities of gender dynamics, societal expectations, and the quest for liberation within a patriarchal society. These themes effortlessly leap forward all through the scenes of the documentary series. The series resource persons: Prof. Shelley P. Haley, Prof. Joyce Tyledesley, Debora Heard, Prof. Islam Issa, Dr. Colleen Darnell, all scholars, in varying degrees, of Egyptian’s history, give spoken testimonies to the legacy of Cleopatra, and by extension, her Ptolemaic ancestry. This oral account is what formed the template for the reenacted documentary.
The historical importance of Cleopatra aside, the idea for creating African Queens was inspired by Smith’s daughter, Willow, who posed the question: “Who are the African queens, and why don’t we know about them?” The series of documentaries which Smith is creating is a noble cinematic initiative to preserve the legacy of these African matriarchs whose stories are similar with that of other female leaders in Western societies. These documentaries created by Smith offer easy access to the stories of these African female rulers.
Queen Cleopatra, in its preservative effort, shows the crudeness of pre-colonial African nobles. Smith’s documentation of the African pre-colonial rulers, though a noble attempt at preserving African history, is still flawed. Smith’s growing catalog of films which explore the African past with a feminist inclination is an attempt to preserve the flawed history of the African ruling class. Cleopatra became active with Roman politics at a crucial period with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony providing her entry into Roman politics. The series subtly hints at the architectural and political changes Cleopatra’s relationship to Julius Caesar inspired. All through the time span of the four-episode series, there is a struggle to ascertain what political, economical and architectural reformation Cleopatra’s rulership necessitates in Egypt. Although the series is an attempt to glorify Cleopatra’s legacy, the series fail to show how important Cleopatra’s rule is to the Egyptian people.
(Queen Cleopatra is currently streaming on Netflix.)
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.