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The Creators of Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra' Respond to Poor Reaction, And It's Just What You'd Expect

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

As former and potentially future President Donald Trump once said, "Everything woke turns to s**t." Bud Light and its parent company Anheuser-Busch, as they deal with the fallout from partnering with transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney, are learning that lesson the hard way, and it almost dwarfs all other similar situations befalling companies. However, we cannot forget Netflix and its docudrama series "Queen Cleopatra," which premiered on May 10, 2023. Much of the cast is black, including Cleopatra, who is portrayed by biracial actress Adele James. 

To say the show has been received poorly is a gross understatement. It has a 2 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with more than 5,000 reviews. The ten critics' reviews show "Queen Cleopatra" to have a 10 percent score among such a cohort. 

An even worse rating comes from IMDb, which gives the show 1 star out of 10. There have been more than 58,000 ratings, with 56,000 being 1-star reviews. The show has an unweighted rating of 1.2 stars. The website notes that it gives shows a weighted rating, in the case of "Queen Cleopatra," 1 star, "to help keep it reliable." 

Ratings are also broken down by country. Egypt has the most ratings, with 18,000 of the 19,000 ratings giving the show 1 star for an unweighted rating of 1.1 stars. One review noted, "The whole of Egypt is raging at this documentary for falsifying their history. [Former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs] Zahi Hawaz is furious. Egypt is even making their own documentary about Cleopatra. To rectify history." 

Many of the show's trivia items also touched upon reactions from Egypt, including from Egyptian youth and even a lawsuit. But there are also particularly reactionary items, including one claiming in part, "There is no reason in the world not to cast a Black actress as Cleopatra -- or a white, Arab, or Asian actress, for that matter. The role demands skill, not skin color. The Netflix series is a work of art, not scholarship." 

Another trivia item seeks to demean Egyptians. "Racism has roots in Egyptian society. For centuries, Egypt was colonized by Arab, Turkish and European imperial powers. Lighter skin was identified with the elite. Darker-complexioned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans have been portrayed as doormen, waiters, and cleaners in movies for decades," it reads in part. 

As The Daily Mail explained while highlighting some of the show's particularly bad reviews:

On Sunday, lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint with the public prosecutor demanding that he take 'the necessary legal measures' to block access to Netflix.

He alleged the show featured content that violated Egypt's media laws and accused Netflix of trying to 'promote the Afrocentric thinking... which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.'

Egyptian Streets covered the campaign Egyptian youth embarked on to protest the series:

The documentary sparked debate and received backlash from the moment the trailer was aired. Produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, the documentary falls under the African Queens docu series which aims to spotlight the life and reign of women leaders from Africa.

As a response, Egyptian youth launched a counter campaign with the hashtag #مصر_للمصريين (Egypt for Egyptians). In the campaign, young Egyptians shared their photos online with half of the picture including their face and the other half showing the face of kings, queens or everyday figures from ancient Egypt. Through these photos, the campaign aims to show the similarities between Egyptians today and ancient Egyptians.

Whether through online petitions, social media posts, or reports on Netflix, Egyptian youth have been keen on expressing their disapproval of the newly-released documentary and attempting to emphasize their lineage to ancient Egyptians.

Among the countries with the most reviews, the United States is second, with 9,000 ratings, which actually gives the show its highest unweighted rating by country, at 1.3 stars. Again, this is out of 10 stars, though, so it's still awful. 

Of those 200 users who went and left a review, it's quite clear that there is a common theme of historical inaccuracy. Only seven gave the series 10 stars, while 174 reviews gave it 1 star. 

One particularly insightful 1-star review actually came from an Australian user:

As an Australian, with more than a passing interest in Ancient Egyptian history, do I think (based on all current scholarly evidence) that Cleopatra VII was a black woman in the same way that an African American woman is a black woman? No, I don't. Nor do I think Cleopatra VII was a white woman in the same way as I am a 'descended from Anglo Saxon British Isles' white woman. Cleopatra VII's story does not, and it did not need to be split into such a seemingly strict binary racial point of view.

All current available historical sources and evidence points to Cleopatra VII being of Macedonian Greek descent, with arguments made for some possible Persian and/or Egyptian ancestry as well. Already that is a wonderful array of possible skin tones to work with in terms of casting for an historically accurate depiction, that requires no race washing in either extremes of direction.

There are so many wonderful, fascinating, strong, and empowering black female African Rulers, such as the Shanakdakhete, Kandake Amanirenas, and Kandake Amanitore of the Nubian Kushite Empire as well. Where are their stories? Why aren't we seeing an entire Netflix series devoted to these African Queens being hyped & promoted in the same was as the historical inaccuracy of Queen Cleopatra was? Why are these stories not the ones being presented to children and young women of colour in America as a source of cultural pride and empowerment? Why the need to appropriate an historical figure of another people's culture? I honestly just don't understand it. So much rich African history to work with, and the producers of this show went with a Ptolemaic Queen of mostly Macedonian Greek descent instead? It's just so disappointing and mind bogging to me.

...

There is no part of this documentary farce that I can recommend anyone waste their time viewing.

Forbes noted on Monday that "Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra' Appears To Have The Worst Audience Score In TV History," when the show had a 13 percent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and around a 1-2 percent rating from audience members.

"The low scores are no doubt overwhelmingly because of the casting choice and historical alterations, but the show at its core does not seem to be terribly good even outside of that," Senior Contributor Paul Tassi wrote. "If you do want to judge it for yourself, it's only four, 45-minute episodes long, which was admittedly more of an investment that I wanted to make, but it's relatively little compared to other series. Or you could save yourself the time and read Cleopatra's Wikipedia entry, which would be probably more accurate information and less painful to watch," he added in an update to the piece. 

The Daily Mail also noted how Netflix has suffered in the past: 

The fury at Netflix's right-on programming comes after it appeared to have ditched the woke messaging last year.

Netflix took a hit in the first half of 2022, losing about 1,170 million subscribers as rivals such as Paramount+ and Disney+ raked them in.

The huge decline was seen by some as a direct consequence of the company's late response to demands from its viewers to tone down their woke agenda.

But after deciding to back figures like comedian Dave Chapelle it bounced back. Netflix added 1.75 million new subscribers for the quarter of 2023, nearly 550,000 more than consensus estimates, and a stark contrast to the loss of 200,000 subscribers the company suffered in the same period last year. 

Of course, there's news coverage from the leftist, mainstream media that blames all of these people as racist for their complaints about historical inaccuracy and trying to forcibly insert race while offending a race of people through their cultural appropriation. 

"'Queen Cleopatra's' Audience Score Getting Review-Bombed on Rotten Tomatoes Isn't Funny, It's Racist," claimed one headline from Decider. "Let's Just Call the Outrage Around Queen Cleopatra What It Is: Racism," claimed another from Vogue. "Was Cleopatra Black? We're asking the wrong question," is the headline the Washington Post went with. A guest essay for The New York Times wrote about the "Fear of a Black Cleopatra."

Netflix had perhaps the worst response of all. They turned off comments for the trailer. The show's cast and creators are also tone-deaf. 

Director Tina Gharavi wrote about the backlash for Variety, with the headline, "'Queen Cleopatra' Director Speaks Out: 'What Bothers You So Much About a Black Cleopatra?" Some particularly noteworthy excerpts show us she really doesn't get it:

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.

...

As production got nearer, I realized the magnitude and political nature of this job. It was important to get things right, but also to find a way of telling the story with humanism and nuance: The last thing we needed was another Cleopatra divorced from her womanhood and her power only sexualized. The HBO series “Rome” portrayed one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and powerful women in the world as a sleazy, dissipated drug addict, yet Egypt didn’t seem to mind. Where was the outrage then? But portraying her as Black? Well.

...

Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that. I am okay with this.

...

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.

Most of all, we need to realize that Cleopatra’s story is less about her than it is about who we are.

It’s almost as if we don’t realize that misogynoir still has an effect on us today. We need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction. I am proud to stand with “Queen Cleopatra” — a re-imagined Cleopatra — and with the team that made this. We re-imagined a world over 2,000 years ago where once there was an exceptional woman who ruled. I would like to draw a direct line from her to the women in Egypt who rose up in the Arab uprisings, and to my Persian sisters who are today rebelling against a brutal regime. Never before has it been more important to have women leaders: white or Black.

Glamour UK could not have provided Adele James with a more glowing profile as they gave her quite the softball interview, in which James defended herself in the role, and together lamented the "trolls" she encountered. 

Sadly, though, it's all so very predictable when it comes to woke Hollywood. 

Perhaps no one has more expertly put the show's creators in their place as Sara Khorshid did in writing for Foreign Policy

"Netflix ended up using another racialized people's history to further its own efforts to promote inclusion and identity politics," she wrote before closing her piece by noting, "If the intention of Queen Cleopatra's makers was to reverse decades of racism on the screen, what they ended up achieving is a perpetuation of this very racism." 

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