Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra”, a four-part docuseries exploring the life and reign of Cleopatra, was released this month to almost immediate criticism. The series, produced by actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, received a 3% audience score — and 14% critic score — on Rotten Tomatoes.

Here’s everything you need to know about the “Queen Cleopatra” controversy — and about the true story of Cleopatra herself.

What’s the ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Netflix controversy?

Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” almost immediately faced criticism for casting a Black actress, Adele James, to play Cleopatra. As Forbes notes, such backlash would typically come from “anti-woke” groups — but in the case of “Queen Cleopatra,” criticism stems from Egyptian officials and historians.

Many claim that casting a Black actress as Cleopatra is historically inaccurate, while some have called it appropriation. This criticism namely comes from questions surrounding Cleopatra’s ethnicity and heritage.

Egypt’s ministry of tourism and antiquities claims that, because “Queen Cleopatra” is a docuseries, it “requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts,” per Forbes.

Dr. Mustafa Waziri, Egyptian secretary general of the supreme council of archaeology, said that the portrayal of Cleopatra as Black is a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy,” per Forbes.

Others point out that the criticism of “Queen Cleopatra” is rooted in racism. Why, some have asked, is it more suitable for white actresses like Elizabeth Taylor to play Cleopatra than a Black actress like James?

As Leila Latif wrote for the Guardian, “But while (the uncertainty of Cleopatra’s lineage) opens her up to being played by any number of actors, it is notable that some see blue-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and Israeli Wonder Woman Gal Gadot as more accurate.”

“Cleopatra’s precise skin and hair texture are up for speculation, but to default to whiteness is insidious and ridiculous,” Latif continued.

“Queen Cleopatra” director Tina Gharavi defended the decision to portray Cleopatra as Black, writing in Variety, “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister? And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.”

Was Cleopatra Black?

While, according to Collider, we know that Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy I Soter, who had roots in “Macedonian heritage,” Cleopatra’s maternal side is surrounded in mystery.

Per Collider, there’s “uncertainty around the identity of her mother.” It’s commonly assumed that Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, Ptolemy XII’s wife. And, based off of the “lineage of the Ptolemies,” historians have concluded “that Cleopatra’s lineage was predominantly Hellenistic in origin.”

In other words, Cleopatra was “a member of an ancient Greek dynasty” known as the Ptolemies, according to National Geographic. The Ptolemaic kingdom took over Egypt in 305 B.C.

According to Collider, Waziri claims that Cleopatra was light-skinned. This is based off the theory that Cleopatra had a predominantly Hellenistic, or Greek, lineage. But, as Collider puts it, “there is ample ambiguity existing around Cleopatra’s true appearance to allow the makers of ‘Queen Cleopatra’ to cast Adele James in the role.”

“But the choice of making the entire family look Black distorts the historical proof that suggests otherwise, leaving a huge dent in the credibility and accuracy of the docuseries,” Collider concludes.

Professor of literature and history Islam Issa, who appears in “Queen Cleopatra” — the only Egyptian historian featured on the show, he noted — wrote that the docuseries should be seen as a “docudrama.”

Per Forbes, Issa said that “the largely binary racial terms being used today are anachronistic and can hardly be applied to Cleopatra’s context,” adding that “genetic makeup was varied as people from across the region, from Europeans to Nubians, lived and married on its lands.”

“To claim that Egypt had no dark-skinned people in it, or that the origins of Egyptian civilizations were fundamentally sub-Saharan African, are essentially both forms of erasure,” Issa wrote.

Issa concludes that focusing on how Cleopatra looked “takes away from her powerful legacy.”

“Obsessing over how a powerful woman looked is ironically reductionist and objectifying in itself, so the documentary part should shed light on her entire, fascinating life, not just how she may have looked,” Issa wrote.

Why is Cleopatra so famous?

Cleopatra, who became pharaoh of Egypt at 18 in 51 B.C., has become synonymous with seduction and her relationships with two famous men: Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. But, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Cleopatra was so much more.

The rise and fall of Rome

As Smithsonian Magazine put it, Cleopatra was a “commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy and governance, fluent in nine languages, silver-tongued and charismatic.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “at the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler.” Cleopatra had a “first-rate education”; she commanded Egypt’s army and navy; she would “negotiate with foreign powers and preside over temples” and “dispensed justice and regulated an economy.”

In short, Cleopatra ruled over Egypt and orchestrated its prosperity. She did this all while maintaining a favorable relationship with Rome and influencing international politics.

But despite all her achievements, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Cleopatra “survives as a wanton temptress, not the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.”

How old was Cleopatra when she met Caesar?

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Cleopatra was 21 when she met Julius Caesar. She was a fugitive at the time — banished from Egypt due to a civil war with her brother and husband at the time, Ptolemy XIII.

Julius Caesar had arrived in Alexandria after Pompey, a “brilliant Roman general” who was “dealt a crush defeat in central Greece” by Caesar, had been murdered. After taking refuge in Ptolemy’s palace, Cleopatra snuck into the palace “inside a sturdy sack” and met with Caesar.

Cleopatra eventually bore Caesar a son — Caesarian — while Caesar eventually defeated Ptolemy XIII’s troops and returned Cleopatra to the throne. According to Collider, Caesar never claimed Caesarian as his own son.

Who was the love of Cleopatra?

After the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. — during which Cleopatra was living in Rome, according to History — Cleopatra returned to Alexandria. It wasn’t until 41 B.C. that she met with Mark Antony, “one of Rome’s three joint leaders,” in Tarsus, per National Geographic.

Cleopatra met with Antony for political reasons. According to National Geographic, “Winning the friendship of one of Rome’s most powerful men would bring closer links with the republic, consolidating her grip on the throne and perhaps even expanding her kingdom.”

Even though Antony was married, Antony and Cleopatra fell in love and started an affair. Antony soon joined Cleopatra in Alexandria, per National Geographic.

As National Geographic tells it, the two were “inseparable” in 41-40 B.C. Antony and Cleopatra would wander the streets at night, dressed as slaves, and drank, played dice and hunted together.

Tragically, it was “Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra” and “and the reputed excesses of their life in the Egyptian seat of power” that eventually led to both Antony and Cleopatra’s downfall, per National Geographic.

How old was Cleopatra when she died?

Cleopatra was 39 when she died, according to Smithsonian Magazine. After losing a battle to Octavian’s — one of Rome’s three rulers — in 31 B.C., both Antony and Cleopatra took their own lives, per National Geographic.

Reportedly, Cleopatra told Antony that she planned to kill herself after the defeat. As a result, Antony stabbed himself and died in her arms. After failing to negotiate with Octavian, Cleopatra barricaded herself in her tomb, accompanied by servants, and killed herself.

Despite the popular myth that Cleopatra killed herself with an asp, it’s likely that she used poison, per National Geographic.

Is ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Netflix accurate?

Casting controversies aside, Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” gets some facts right. According to Collider, the docuseries accurately portrays the rivalry between Cleopatra and her siblings, as well as her exile by her brother, Ptolemy XIII and eventual return to Egypt.

While Caesar and Cleopatra’s meeting was popularly portrayed as a dramatic seduction, “Queen Cleopatra” chooses to portray their first encounter as a meeting of minds. The docuseries “suggests that it was Cleopatra’s charm and persuasive abilities that flattered Caesar in the first place,” per Collider.

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The docuseries gets other details right, such as the relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar. However, according to Collider, “Queen Cleopatra” romanticizes Cleopatra. As Collider puts it, “the docuseries plays along with its tendency of overtly romanticizing its protagonist, particularly through its villainous portrayal of others.”

“However, while taking a gutsy approach to touching some contentious aspects of the queen’s life, the docuseries risks providing a totally inaccurate first impression of Queen Cleopatra,” per Collider.

Where Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” does succeed, Collider concludes, is “in its celebration of the life of a legendary queen who yielded enormous power in an exclusively male-dominated world.”

What is ‘Queen Cleopatra’ rated and why?

According to Common Sense Media, “Queen Cleopatra” is appropriate for those 15 and up. The show is rated TV-14, per Netflix. The show includes:

  • Violence.
  • Mild sexual situations.
  • Discussions of sexuality.
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