A new Netflix documentary drama focusing on the ruler of Ancient Egypt, Queen Cleopatra seeks to re-enact her life and gain insight from historical experts. Queen Cleopatra aims to redress the imbalance that European perspectives have imposed on Cleopatra. Daniel Evans reviews.
Episode 1 of Queen Cleopatra is perhaps the laziest attempt at a historical documentary I have ever seen. It has also generated a deal of controversy with its debatable take on history and many Egyptians have been justifiably angered by its disregard for their national story. On top of all of this, quality is seriously lacking, meaning the whole thing offers little more than a cheap laugh when it should have been an enlightening spotlight on a fascinating historical character.
Some of its many issues include an utterly unnuanced presentation of Cleopatra, innumerable contradictions in messaging and an overly melodramatic tone. A documentary that begins by stating that Cleopatra “walked through the sandstorm of history and left footprints so deep that no man could ever erase them” should perhaps not be expected to provide a balanced picture of its subject.
Are those who do not side with Cleopatra simply not Egyptian?
Like any great historical figure, Cleopatra’s character was complex, but this complexity is perceived as a negative and is almost entirely ignored, being instead replaced with cringe-inducing dialogue and unsubstantiated aspersions. In attempting to present the queen in an impossibly positive light, it repeatedly stumbles over itself trying to justify that position, and the whole documentary loses credibility as a result.
There is some acknowledgement that she perceived herself as a goddess, but this is not questioned in the slightest. Claims are also repeatedly made that she had the automatic “support of the Egyptian people”. Julius Caesar, on the other hand, is sarcastically displayed as pretending to rule for people. The issue here is not in the justifiably negative presentation of Caesar, but in the total failure to question if Cleopatra was really any different.
Sarcastic language is once again rolled out, with the Pharoah Ptolemy’s being subtly criticised for wearing gold armour. Ptolemy likely saw himself in much the same way Cleopatra did, but acknowledging this does not fit into the image of the queen the documentary shoehorns itself into, so it is ignored. The claim of her possessing the automatic support of all the Egyptian people, which is a blatant exaggeration, is also contradicted when Alexandrians are described as having sided against her repeatedly. A huge civil war also breaks out that requires a foreign Roman army under Caesar to re-assert her rule. Are those who do not side with Cleopatra simply not Egyptian?
The debate over Cleopatra’s race has also whipped up a large degree of controversy. The documentary is unashamedly Afrocentric in its approach and while this was a view that arose from the very real suppression of African history by a racist eurocentrism, it does not mean it is not problematic in its own right.
Cleopatra was from a Macedonian dynasty that ruled over Egypt. The elites were Greek, the court was Greek and the Egyptians they controlled were subordinated, with their language being side-lined. There are indeed questions over Cleopatra’s ancestry, but there is simply no concrete evidence of it being Egyptian in nature. If her grandmother was an unknown member of the court as the documentary claims, it is far more likely this ‘unknown’ person was themselves from the Greek elite.
Unfortunately, this debate is not acknowledged in any meaningful way and the viewer is instead led heavily into a direction not backed up by anything substantive. We are told that there is “a lot of research” proving the claim, but there is no explanation of what this evidence is, who has compiled it or whether it is even real.
At the root of this documentary is a profound laziness
The Greek nature of the Ptolemaic dynasty is entirely removed from the fictionalised re-enactments which make up most of episode one and Cleopatra’s cultural Greekness, which we are actually certain of, is almost entirely disregarded. Jada Pinkett Smith, the documentary’s creator stated that “we don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important to me”.
In one respect this is true, as African history has been disregarded by mainstream history. On the other hand, this does not mean history should be fabricated to fill this gap. Perhaps Cleopatra’s marketability as a previously known figure was more of a driving force behind this documentary, rather than a truly sincere desire to depict history that has been ignored. If that desire was real, the creators would have attempted to tell histories that people by and large haven’t already heard of. It is even possible controversy was actually the primary goal, as it has certainly got everyone talking about what is in reality an incredibly bland effort.
At the root of this documentary is a profound laziness. It is lazy in the cringe-inducing dialogue of its re-enactments, it is lazy in the overblown claims of its ‘experts’ and it is lazy in its overly idealised presentation of a fascinating historical figure. The documentary skates over the real history in favour of modern political considerations and actively misrepresents the facts making it wholly unreliable. It is an overly glossy ‘Hollywood’ telling that treats unsubstantiated opinion as fact and ignores or discounts anything that gets in the way of its narrative.
histories, which could have been told, have been ignored so that this drivel can be made
Worst of all, it has continued to contribute to the very thing it purports to oppose; that being the oversimplification and misrepresentation of African history. The Ptolemaic dynasty were Greek invaders who effectively ruled over Egypt, yet a queen of this dynasty is dishonestly presented as an African hero. Pan-Africanism can sometimes discount the immense diversity of a continent that has for far too long being artificially lumped into one.
Countless cultures and histories, which could have been told, have been ignored so that this drivel can be made and that is a great shame. History documentaries have a responsibility to educate people and widen their understanding. This lazy and dishonest documentary does the exact opposite, and I can only hope it is consigned to the obscurity it sorely deserves.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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