Published by NBC News
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.
“Was Cleopatra white?” is an essentially meaningless question since categories and morphologies of race in the United States of 2020 are not those of 1st century B.C. Egypt. And they are particularly inappropriate given that Cleopatra and the region she dwelled in were defined by a breathtaking array of cultural mixing — something the critics of her casting would do well to remember.
When Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C., her birthplace of Alexandria was the capital of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom. Though located on the southern side of the Mediterranean, the ruling monarchy was rather conscious of its Greek origins and wanted to maintain that cultural status; intermarriage with the native Egyptians was forbidden in Alexandria and other cities, although this wasn’t always observed.
The kingdom was part of the effervescent Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean in which Cleopatra’s mother tongue, Koine Greek (the standardized dialect of Athens), was the lingua franca for the exchange of goods and ideas. The dynasty she was born into had been founded about two centuries earlier by its namesake Ptolemy, a companion of Alexander the Great whose conquests from Egypt to India laid the foundations of the Hellenistic world. The kingdom’s diverse people included Egyptians, Nubians, Syrians, Celts and Jews, some of whom would occasionally be granted the coveted status of Greek elites.
On her father’s side, Cleopatra was an eighth-generation descendant of Ptolemy. The identity of her mother has never been verified, giving rise to speculations that she might have been a native Egyptian or perhaps had some Iranian or Syrian heritage.
Either way, the debate over her DNA misses the much more interesting part of Cleopatra’s biography and the mix of worlds she encompassed by nurture if not nature. Although she had been born into an Alexandria with segregation between the ruling Greeks, native Egyptians and other ethnic groups such as Jews, her own outlook defied this rigid separation.
When Cleopatra came to the throne jointly with her brother in her late teens, Cleopatra became the first-ever Ptolemaic ruler to fluently learn the local Egyptian tongue. (The language is now extinct, but a form of it was spoken until around the 16th century and is now preserved as the liturgical language of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.)
Cleopatra also dressed and styled herself like an Egyptian, elevated Egyptian religious practices and identified herself with the Egyptian goddess Isis. If we are to believe the tall tales of her first-century Roman biographer Plutarch, she not only possessed an “irresistible charm” but spoke fluent Ethiopian, Arabic, Syriac, Parthian and Hebrew (one thing in common with Gadot, at least.) This probably exaggerated multilingualism wasn’t due to linguaphilia but her self-nativization attempts to help spread her authority in the region, challenged as it was by the might of Rome.
Ironically, her origins were the subject of conversation then, too. Her Roman opponents inflicted racist scorn on her, with Roman ruler Augustus deriding her as an “Eastern courtesan” and Latin poets Horace and Virgil speaking of her as a conniving “oriental.”
The black-and-white thinking that confines Cleopatra and Gadot to racial boxes ignores the complexities of human commonality and community. Gadot can indeed be a white-passing actor in the U.S. while also being a fellow Middle Easterner to Iranians like me, despite the unfortunate conflicts that pit our nations against each other. Someone who celebrates her origins from a “small country in the Middle East,” Gadot is certainly as fit as anyone to play Cleopatra — their hometowns are only a half-day’s drive away, after all.
The knee-jerk anxiety about unmatched ethnicities of actors and characters is understandable. The history of cinema is full of hurtful portrayals by white actors, ranging from the gruesome blackface donned by Al Jolson in the landmark sound film “The Jazz Singer” to Mickey Rooney’s infamous Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Alec Guinness’ anti-Semitic Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” But the problem with these portrayals is their demeaning caricaturization — something that no one expects in the coming Cleopatra film.
Meanwhile, if we are to truly expand representation on screen, maybe we can look at some other ancient female leaders? How about a film on the 2nd century B.C. Nubian Queen Shanakdakhete, who reigned in today’s Sudan? Or a biopic on the 1st century A.D.’s Musa? Believed to be he first woman to have ever ruled Iran, she was originally an Italian slave gifted to the Parthian monarch of Iran by Augustus, the very tyrant who defeated Cleopatra. Maybe we can fictionalize history and watch her rise and take revenge for Cleopatra? I’d watch Iranians and Italians fight over who gets to play her any day.