A wave of controversies followed the trailer release of “Queen Cleopatra.” Many Egyptians took to the internet to speak against the Netflix documentary series; some even called for a ban. The trailer gave birth to a growing concern over misrepresentation and an overall distortion of Egyptian history when looked at through our modern understanding of race. The trailer strategically used one of the most controversial statements (“Cleopatra was black”) that is pretty much taken out of context. Kudos to Netflix for creating virality and hype around “Queen Cleopatra,” but in all honesty, the documentary is substandard.
The focus of the documentary is not just Cleopatra’s race; it is entirely about her life as the Last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Unlike the trailer, which seemed to make a firm claim about her race, the documentary series is rather speculative. Since the identities of Cleopatra’s mother and grandmother remain unknown, it is not too far-fetched to assume that she could have been of mixed race. Cleopatra’s appearance varies from one depiction to another, and “Queen Cleopatra” chooses to imagine her as a queen of African descent. Of course, the intention behind the representation has to do with making a sociopolitical statement; the findings and discourses around Cleopatra’s origin are stated clearly, and the documentary series directly addresses the concern. Adele James playing Cleopatra is not the same as Elizabeth Taylor portraying the Queen in “Cleopatra” (1963), considering that one is a documentary while the other is a work of fiction. But at the same time, the series deals with a possibility, not an absolute truth. As an audience, it is important to remember that the depiction is debatable and must not be used to make a firm statement. Now that we have covered the controversial angle, it is time to discuss the series in detail.
While the academicians provide the audience with a simplified understanding of the last pharaoh, a fictionalized retelling of her life unfolds on screen. Soon after the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, jointly began to rule over Egypt. Before taking over the reign, she was married to her brother to cement their bond as rulers. Cleopatra was not too keen on sharing the throne with Ptolemy XIII; he did not have a mind of his own and would often rely on his advisor, Pothinus, to make a decision. While Cleopatra believed that they must help Pompey fight Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XIII decided against it. This created a rift between the two that eventually ended in a civil war. Pompey traveled to Egypt seeking shelter, and Julius Caesar followed him. To please Caesar and prove their allegiance, Ptolemy XIII ordered the beheading of Pompey. Pompey was Caesar’s ex-son-in-law, and he had intended to forgive him. He fumed with rage when he was presented with Pompey’s head, and Cleopatra took advantage of the situation. Egyptologist Dr. Colleen Darnell discussed how Julius Caesar was mesmerized by Cleopatra. She was a diplomat, a ruler, and an equal with whom he could share his ideas and knowledge. She was elegant and resolute, a fierce combination that Caesar had never come across. While Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra has been discussed for thousands of years, “Queen Cleopatra” addresses the villainization of the Egyptian Queen.
Queen Cleopatra is popularly remembered as a seductress rather than a political diplomat and an effective ruler. At a time when the father of her twins stopped contacting her, Cleopatra focused on the needs of her kingdom. She successfully made Egypt prosperous by making changes in taxation and exports. “Queen Cleopatra” reminds the audience of the many facets of the last pharaoh and how it was the insecure members of the Roman Senate who conceived the notion of Cleopatra being an evil, cunning woman. Her presence threatened the Romans, and she was condemned for the downfall of Caesar and Antony. The documentary series brings to light the nature of politics that existed at the time and how it differs from the modern idea of morality. The fact that Cleopatra was responsible for the deaths of her siblings, Ptolemy XIV, and Arsinoe IV, cannot be categorized as good or evil; it was a decision driven by self-preservation.
While “Queen Cleopatra” carefully handles the image of the subject by reminding us how we cannot measure her actions by our modern judgment, it fails to do the same for Arsinoe IV. To create the glorious image of Queen Cleopatra, her sister was villainized. Draped in dark clothes, Arsinoe IV is projected as the nefarious sibling who does not deserve to be pitied. Well, she, too, deserved to be humanized! The scripted portion of the series was pretty bad. The dialogues were ineffective and out of touch; the acting was subpar except for Adele James, who did her best to embody Cleopatra, and there was overall confusion with the style they were aiming for. I was quite disappointed by John Patridge’s performance as Julius Caesar. I could not hold my laughter during scenes that were meant to be serious. The show’s creators struggled to decide the flavor they aimed to bring to the table, and ultimately a soap-opera-esque texture was produced. While the academicians’ discussion is informative and somewhat engrossing, the same cannot be said about the scripted portion. The scripted drama dominates the documentary series, and it is overall kitschy. You can watch “Queen Cleopatra” to get a quick understanding of her life and the discourse around the last pharaoh. But as a documentary series, it lacks the appeal to be remembered. Irrespective of the factual accuracy of the scripted portion, “Queen Cleopatra” terribly fails in its execution. It will be interesting if a documentary series is created around the life of Cleopatra Selene II, the Queen of Mauretania, and focuses on figures who remain unexplored.