Queen Cleopatra: A Timeline Of The Drama Surrounding Netflix's Upcoming Series

Adele James in Queen Cleopatra
(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix has had its fair share of controversies of the years, with more recent examples stemming from the streamer’s password-sharing crackdown, the decision to pull the plug on the DVD-by-Mail service, and outcry concerning The Crown’s fifth season following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But in April 2023, the popular streaming service weathered one of its biggest storms yet when it was announced that the upcoming docudrama, Queen Cleopatra, would feature a Black actress as the last Egyptian pharaoh.

If you haven’t been following the story ahead of the new on Netflix title, or came into the drama part way through, don’t worry, because we’re about to break it all down with sections on the initial outcry, the Egyptian response, and what the cast and crew have said. 

Netflix logo

(Image credit: Netflix)

In February 2023, Netflix Announced That An Actress Of Mixed Heritage Would Be Playing Cleopatra

All of the drama surrounding Queen Cleopatra started in February 2023 when Netflix announced the second series in Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens collection would feature an actress of mixed heritage in the lead role as a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race. 

In a blogpost on Netflix’s Tudum (opens in new tab) fandom site, producers of the four-part series stressed that while Cleopatra’s “ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra,” the decision to depict the pharaoh as mixed ethnicity was intentional and reflects theories about her ancestry. The decision to cast Adele James, a Black British actress with multiracial ancestry, in that role was met by immediate blowback from commenters around the world.

Adele James in Queen Cleopatra

(Image credit: Netflix)

The Vitriol Surrounding Queen Cleopatra Led To Adele James Calling Out Her Attackers On Twitter In April 2023

In the days following Netflix’s announcement that Adele James would be portraying the Egyptian ruler, the Casualty star took to her Twitter account to speak on the subject. In a post that included screenshots of tweets with incredibly racist epitaphs and claims that the show and the actress were stealing Egyptian history, the actress stated that this type of behavior would not be tolerated and that she would block anyone “without hesitation.” James also offered some advice by saying that if someone doesn’t like the casting then they can simply just not watch the show. 

Adele James in Queen Cleopatra

(Image credit: Netflix)

Also In April 2023, An Egyptian Attorney Filed A Lawsuit Over The Docudrama

It wasn’t just a storm of racially-charged tweets and an onslaught of trolling that came in the fallout of the Queen Cleopatra controversy, as an Egyptian attorney would go on to file a legal complaint with a public prosecutor demanding that he block access to Netflix’s services in Egypt, according to Cairo 24.

In the suit, the attorney, whose name is Mahmoud al-Semary, alleged that the series included content that was in violation of Egypt’s media laws and that the production was attempting to distort and erase “the Egyptian identity.” However, there have been no updates on the lawsuit in the weeks since news of it first surfaced. 

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in Queen Cleopatra

(Image credit: Netflix)

That Same Month, Director Tina Gharavi Published An Op-Ed Speaking Out About The Queen Cleopatra Backlash

Adele James wasn’t the only person connected to the docudrama to speak out against the controversy surrounding Cleopatra’s race and the vitriol being spread on the internet. In April 2023, series director Tina Gharavi, who was born in Iran and identifies as Persian, wrote an op-ed for Variety that covered everything from her upbringing, to previous depictions of Cleopatra by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, to the research she conducted to come to her conclusion that the chances of the ruler being white were somewhat unlikely:

So, was Cleopatra Black? We don’t know for sure, but we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about our colorism, and the internalized white supremacy that Hollywood has indoctrinated us with.

In the lengthy essay, Gharavi also drew attention to the Angelina Jolie-led Cleopatra biopic that was in the works about a decade ago, as well as a more recent attempt by Gal Gadot to play the Egyptian ruler, and how those depictions of the historical figure meant that she and her team “had to get it even more right” when it came to the casting. 

Egypt’s Council Of Antiquities Called The Docudrama A ‘Falsification Of Egyptian History’ In An April 2023 Statement

A woman standing on a sand dune in Queen Cleopatra

(Image credit: Netflix)

April was a very busy month for Queen Cleopatra and the show's dissenters, and it became even moreso when Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) released a statement (via Deadline) in which Secretary General Mostafa Waziri described the yet-to-be-released docudrama a “falsification of Egyptian history:

The appearance of the heroine is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy, especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work, which requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified.

Waziri also pointed out the SCA’s response to the show and backlash stems from the country’s defense of the history of Queen Cleopatra VII and not because of racism.

Queen Cleopatra

(Image credit: Netflix)

Adele James Said She Thought She Had ‘Every Right To Have A Shot At Humanizing’ Cleopatra In May 2023 

In May 2023, just days before Queen Cleopatra was set to premiere on Netflix, James sat down for an extensive interview with Glamour Magazine in which she talked about her performance, what led her to this point in her career, and her response to those who are offended by a Black woman playing the Egyptian ruler:

The only thing I can say about it [Cleopatra's background) is that we just don't know. There are versions of Cleopatra that exist already with actresses in that role who are fairer skinned than I am, but I think I have every right to have a shot at humanizing this incredible woman. We all put our blood, sweat and tears into that show, and I think anybody else has as much of a right as anybody else to have a go at it because we just don't know.

James went on to point out that it is never acceptable for anybody to treat her or anybody else the way people from the show have been treated ever since it was announced, and that the racist attacks and death threats she has received aren't only not necessary, they are very harmful.

Only time will tell if this will be the end of the drama surrounding Queen Cleopatra or if it will only get more intense after the show makes its debut on the 2023 TV schedule. Those who want to check out the four-part docudrama can do so with a Netflix subscription.

Stream Queen Cleopatra on Netflix starting May 10th. (opens in new tab)

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.