Cleopatra Hollywood Controversy


Worthy magazine writer XY is a guy who has a lot to say. Some things you may enjoy hearing other things not so much, but either way he is honest and he will make you think. He joins us today to discuss his opinion about the latest Cleopatra cinema adventure, which includes Angelina Jolie. 

Hollywood recently announced that Angelina Jolie will be playing the role of Cleopatra. It is fair to say that Angelina is drop dead gorgeous by any standard of beauty. So why would anyone raise an objection to her playing Cleopatra? Historical dramas are among the most challenging films. Movie makers endeavor to bring antiquity to life and as a result, they are meticulous in their attention to detail. Every costume is rigorously inspected by specialists. Dialog is repeatedly combed through for that delicate balance between historical accuracy and modern intelligibility. Weapons must be accurate. Sets must be perfect. Film makers will expend tremendous energy ensuring that everything in this movie is an accurate representation of history, except their lead character. The problem is simply, that Cleopatra was not a white or fair skinned woman.

Worthy Magazine loves all forms of beauty yet this new role for Jolie seems to be a triumph for those that prefer one particular form of conventional beauty above all others. The name Cleopatra is synonymous with beauty. She is forever remembered as one of the women that epitomizes beauty, along with other notables like Helen of Troy or Catwoman.

In reality, Cleopatra was quite an average looking woman, rather
homely by modern standards. We have yet to reconcile this fact in our depictions of her nor have we wrestled with the fact that this paragon of feminine beauty was a woman of color. In 1917 Theda Bara played Cleopatra in one of the most celebrated silent films of all time. In 1934 Claudette Colbert starred in an Academy Award wining revision. Then in 1945 Vivian Leigh played Cleopatra and then most famously Elizabeth Taylor forever defined the character in her iconic 1963 portrayal. In all of these cases, the actress chosen were a reflection  of a single homogenous appreciation of beauty. Egypt has always straddled this odd fence in the annals of history. It is in Africa and yet it is often seen as defining the Mediterranean.

 In 332 B.C Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and following his death the Ptolemeic Dynasty of “Greek” pharaohs would be established. Cleopatra was a descendent in this line and this historical fact has always been the basis of depicting her as a very fair skinned European woman, in the middle of Africa! Consider such great films as Night At The Museum 2 and their very european pharaoh. Or the depiction of Cleopatra in the television series Rome. The desire to westernize Egypt and Cleopatra is the result of our collective discomfort with having to define a culture that epitomized civilization and a woman that personified beauty, with “color”. In the explosive racial exchanges of the sixties, Afro centric scholars argued that cleopatra and many others were in fact black, but these “scholars” often lacked any academic credentials and their claims were more politics then historical analysis. 

Therefore traditional scholars argued for their European ideal, and Afro-centrics argued for their Nubian ideal while the truth lay squarely in the middle. As a recent documentary called, Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer recently disclosed, Cleopatra was by modern standards bi-racial! And yet, despite all of their historical experts, film makers will continue propagating the notion that she was a fair skinned woman, living along the Nile in a region where temperatures are among the hottest on earth. The directors of this film are almost assuredly not bigots but they are perhaps bending to the pressure our society still places on artists to reflect myopic standards of beauty. They are also probably still operating under the belief that many in fashion and film still have, that people of color are simply less of a draw at the box office. Numerous magazines and fashion designers shun models of color on their covers and runways because they operate under the belief that consumers don’t buy images they don’t relate to. This is of course industry-speak for black models and black leads don’t move magazines or movies. Yet these industry leaders ignore the fact that one of Vogue’s best selling issue of all time, was an issue highlighting black female beauty. They ignore the fact that we live in the era of Oprah and Obama. Perhaps we have moved beyond the point that people only watch or relate to images that remind them physically of themselves.

 We were so convinced of this that we started a whole magazine around this idea. We’ve learned to identify with each other in ways that transcend race. This is the whole basis of Worthy Magazine. All of this makes the choice of Jolie all the more insulting. It is not only historical revisionism, for the purpose of asserting a purely racial lens for beauty, but it presupposes that society is still locked in those old racial paradigms. Halle Berry would have made an ideal selection. Or Zoe Saldana, Zoe Kravitz, or Alicia Keys. Hell, they could have chosen Rudy for the Cosby Show. Let’s all just hope that
Hollywood finally catches up to the audience they claim to be catering to.

Here are few women that came to mind when I thought of Cleopatra. The list include women who are either African American or mixed with a few different ethnicities.

While I am sure that Angelina Jolie will do an amazing job in the role, I think the issue is that we need to give young girls a wider spectrum of beauty to identify with and choosing the same type of a woman to play a historical role over and over again, is damaging to the youth that we are trying to convince is unique and beautiful. Bottom line, women should be able to identify with the women on big screens and sticking to the traditional archytpe is part of the reason so many young girls of all ethnicities struggle with self-esteem. 

Who would you have play Cleopatra?

2 thoughts on “Cleopatra Hollywood Controversy

  1. Gaaah. Zoe. Zoe. ZOE. Or Rosario would be good. I have actually never seen any of the films where there has been a Cleopatra character, but I do agree traditionally films will inaccurately cast that role.

    Honestly, do the depictions in film really regulate the way young girls and women see themselves?

    I think it has to do with the changing times. Maybe now this is true, but I don't feel like the same idea fully applies to my generation. We had a decent amount of images of a multicultural, urban U.S.A. in the 90s. I found myself identifying through personality/circumstance and hardly wondered about color or culture. However, that could just be my experience.

    Well written. I enjoyed.

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