I was happy for two reasons when I heard earlier this week that Israeli actress Gal Gadot had been tapped to play Cleopatra in her latest Hollywood incarnation. First, she’s a star who could help popularize the legendary queen in a rare female-directed blockbuster. Second, like myself and Cleopatra, she’s from the Middle East. I celebrated this fact with my partner, a fellow Middle Easterner from Lebanon and Turkey, who was excited in the same spirit of regional solidarity.
But we knew controversy was soon to follow given the demands of the current social climate that roles only be played by a person of the same ethnicity as the character. In this case, though, claims that the casting was another example of “whitewashing” had an amusing side to them, since no one seemed to agree on what exactly the acceptable ethnic origin for the actress playing Cleopatra is: North African, African, Arab and Egyptian were suggested. In other words, anybody from the region except Jewish Israelis.
The controversy shows a misunderstanding of history and an unfortunate persistence of racialized thinking about both Gadot and Cleopatra, two women born some 2,000 years apart in two relatively close parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. The fact that neither one’s background can be easily distilled shows why it’s wrong to insist that artists fit rigid identity boxes to qualify for a role and to treat historical figures as markers in our modern-day divides, rather than celebrating individuals for their talents and civilizations for their diversity. To do otherwise denies humanity its rich multicultural heritage.