The ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra is once again in Hollywood’s limelight, thanks to the upcoming film by Paramount Pictures that titles the ruler’s life as the film’s plot. Featuring Gal Gadot as Cleopatra, the film will be directed by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. While the Wonder Woman duo’s reunion certainly is news for Hollywood, the movie is in discussions for all the wrong reasons.
The controversy surrounding the upcoming film stems from the fact that Cleopatra will be played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress who sure has made her name in Hollywood with the talent and fantastic abilities. But critics argue: why is a white actress chosen to play the role of an Egyptian ruler? This isn’t the first time that Hollywood is under fire for such a controversy.
White Saviourism in Hollywood
Being the cinema of the west and the cultural icon of western civilization, Hollywood has a history of portraying different cultures in the light that suits the white culture and audiences.
Films like World Trade Center with William Mapother, Argo with Ben Affleck and Clea DuVall, and Aloha with Emma Stone, among many others, are laced with the inherent themes of the ‘White man’s burden’ and ‘White saviourism’. This concept is deeply rooted in the decades-long practices of ‘whitewashing.’ Simply put, whitewashing happens when white actors are cast to play non-white roles.
While some of these portrayals are more blatant, most of the time, whitewashing is brushed off as an offshoot of casting ignorance. At the beginning of the 20th century, white actors often played the roles of different ethnicities. This portrayal of other ethnic parts by white actors, instead of an actor of that ethnicity, included highlighting different cultures’ stereotypical features. Like, the invisible tape was used to change actors’ eyes into looking like that of an Asian person, or the snake and serpent imagery was used to portray an Indian or South Asian character. This is what gave rise to the much frowned upon ‘Black Face’.
Deliberate oblivion regarding racial and ethnic background forces the ‘whiteness’ to be imposed upon characters with little or nothing to do with a white history. The case of ‘whiteness imposition’ is known to have happened in the casting of Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger in the universally popular Harry Potter film series. Film critics claim that the books do not view the character of Hermoine as white. The discussion led to actress Noma Dumezweni, a British actress of South African descent, playing Hermione Granger’s role in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s theatrical edition.
The Buzz around Cleopatra's Ethnicity
For a long time, there were no questions about Cleopatra VII’s whiteness. It was a widespread belief that she was a Caucasian ruler, an idea promulgated by the Eurocentric scholarship over centuries. However, historians like Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences have challenged this perspective in recent years.
Cleopatra was the daughter of Ptolemy XII, a Macedonian-Greek Egyptian king. Some claim that Ptolemy XII could have had Persian or Syrian lineage, as he was an illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX by an uncertain mother. But Cleopatra’s mother is widely believed as not having a purely white ancestry. According to Betsy M Bryan of John Hopkins University, Cleopatra’s mother might have hailed from a family of the priests from Memphis. If that is true, it crosses out the idea that Cleopatra has complete white ancestry, as she would have at least 50% Egyptian ethnicity.
Is Gal Gadot the Ideal Cleopatra?
The backlash against Gal Gadot is not baseless when considering the arguments and speculations regarding Cleopatra’s ethnicity. Hollywood had whitewashed history surrounding Cleopatra before when actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Hildegard Neil, and Vivien Leigh were cast in the role to build Cleopatra’s ‘white’ image on the screen before.
While one might think casting Gal Gadot adds to this trend, there is more to it than meets the eye. Gadot is an attractive choice to represent the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) section of the population. She does not have entirely white ancestry. Gadot is an Ashkenazi Jew and belongs to the European side of Jews. So, one can argue that she is a much better choice than the previous completely-white actresses.
However, critics retaliate to this perspective with the counter-argument that it is not just about Gal Gadot’s ethnicity. Hollywood failed to cast an English-speaking Egyptian or Greek actress time and again, more or less adding to the trend of whitewashing different cultures.
Who Is A 'Better' Choice To Play Cleopatra?
As the Internet began searching for an ‘ideal’ Cleopatra amid this controversy, the search found a few non-white actors who fit the bill perfectly to play Cleopatra. Many of them are already familiar with the Hollywood screen space.
Sofia Boutella, who starred in the 2017 film The Mummy and the 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, is an actress of Arab descent and a popular internet choice for Cleopatra. Iman Meskini, a half Tunisian actress who has starred in Skam, a Norwegian series, also joined the list of the correct actresses for Cleopatra’s role. Another popular choice is the Mexican-Lebanese actress Emeraude Tobbia, who is a favorite of the fans of the Netflix series Shadowhunters. There are many actresses for Hollywood to choose from, including popular actresses like Salma Hayek, Yasmine Al Massri, and Hend Sabri.
Hollywood’s choices regarding the whitewashing of cultures can’t be excused on the reasoning that there are not enough diverse people in the industry. Casting directors only have to look in the right direction to find the right people.
It is high time that cultural misappropriation is dealt with with a degree of seriousness. Unlike the past, actors of multiple descents are actively working worldwide; all Hollywood needs to do is scour beyond ‘white’ faces.