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12th May 2023

Queen Cleopatra actress says claims of ‘blackwashing’ are ‘fundamentally racist’

Steve Hopkins

‘It’s distressing for anybody to receive any level of abuse, let alone the scale and the nature of what I’ve received’

Adele James, the star of Netflix’s controversial ‘Queen Cleopatra’ docudrama has hit back at the row over her casting, saying it is “fundamentally racist”.

The English actress plays the famous monarch in the series, which has already led to an Egyptian lawyer filing a case with the country’s public prosecutor suggesting it violates media laws and aims to “erase the Egyptian identity”.

The trailer features claims that Cleopatra VII was black with “curly hair” and a historian says in the preview: “I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.”

A top archaeologist insisted Cleopatra was “light-skinned, not black”, the BBC reported last month, but the producer, Jada Pinkett Smith, has suggested “her heritage is highly debated” and James has previously said: “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.”

Appearing Thursday on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch, Adele confessed she did not expect the extent of the criticism: “It would be naïve of me to say that I didn’t expect anything at all, but I didn’t expect the scale of it.”

She added: “And I think it’s distressing for anybody to receive any level of abuse, let alone the scale and the nature of what I’ve received, which is fundamentally racist, all of it.”

Adele said people are “talking about the wrong things”.

“Yes, we don’t know where her mother was from or her paternal grandmother, but also the show is about so much more than the question mark over her race.

“If you watch it is a very small part of the conversation really, this is about the fullness of who this woman was and she was a human being and she shouldn’t be reduced to her race any more than I should or anybody should.”

Adele appeared on Steph’s Packed Lunch along with her co-star, John Patridge, who plays Julius Caesar in the series, and he also shared some thoughts on the controversy which he said is only about “Cleopatra being black”.

He added: “I don’t hear anybody saying that Julius Caesar is a homosexual from Manchester. We’re just actors at the end of the day, and sometimes our morality gets called into play, we’re jobbing actors.”

Adele also talked about the support she’s received from Pinkett Smith, who narrates the series and is its executive producer.

She said Pinkett Smith was “so involved” in the casting process, “She watched all of our audition tapes, she was giving feedback on the rushes when we were out in Morocco shooting”.

“And she’s just been such a champion of the project from the very beginning. I mean, it’s her baby.

“She is an African Queen and I feel like it just couldn’t be more pertinent and important that she’s the figurehead of this. She’s an icon.’

Cairo’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass condemned the documentary as “completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning she was light-skinned, not black.”

Cleopatra was famously played by English actress Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton as Mark Anthony in 1963.

Three years ago plans for a new movie about the queen starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot sparked a backlash from people insisting the role should go to an Egyptian or African actress.

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