New on Netflix: Cleopatra in black and white

Adele James plays Cleopatra in the new Netflix miniseries.

It’s not surprising that Netflix’s new docu-drama Queen Cleopatra currently has an approval rating of only 13 percent. The four-part miniseries falls between so many stools. Was she black or white? The actress Adele James is black, but the Egyptian antiques department is very upset about a dark skin portrayal. In reality, we neither know nor care. Cleopatra came from a line of Macedonian (European) rulers, but we don’t know who her mother was. So any colour combination can be speculated historically speaking.

The docu-drama presentation is presumably popular these days as it’s cheaper to hire talking heads than to show convincing battle scenes with a cast of thousands. The heads in this case are an assembly of scholarly ancient historians who appear every five minutes or so to ensure the viewer knows what year it is or with whom Cleopatra is having intimate relations. The drama bits are closeups of Cleopatra screaming in agony with childbirth pains, plotting the death of rival family members or snuggling up to Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony. Incidentally, the skinflicks element is very tame indeed as the talking heads keep on interrupting the movie.

Historically, things don’t get much better. The real Cleopatra was married incestuously to two boy Ptolemys (XIII and XIV) in an attempt to have a joint-ruler monarchy, but the movie manages to mix them up. The huge naval battle of Actium, which involved hundreds of Roman and Egyptian ships, is depicted in the docu-drama with a view of a distant coast and a few closeups of sweating sailors. Later, Cleopatra is depicted as committing suicide by eating poison, avoiding the usual portrayal of a hissing asp. To be fair, nobody knows how the queen actually died. The earliest suggestion that she used a snake comes in Roman sources several hundred years after her death.

Actress Adele James is a good-looking lady, but it’s far from clear the real Cleopatra was beautiful. The surviving coins of her reign reveal a very plain profile. Plutarch, an ancient Greek source, says she was crafty, beguiling and persistent. She relied on charm rather than a sexy body. On the other hand, she seduced two prominent Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony and had children by them both. The talking heads tell us that its likely Cleopatra was promiscuous because that was the norm for the Egyptian upper class at the time. There is no ancient evidence Cleopatra had an affair with any Egyptian, with the possible exception of her doctor Olympus.

Archaeologists have never managed to find Cleopatra’s tomb. Her wish was to be buried with Mark Anthony and there have been rumours, not substantiated, that their stone grave fell into the sea centuries ago. But one of the talking heads says she believes the conquering Romans would never have agreed to a joint burial and argues convincingly that the pair were likely cremated. It would have been a fitting end for the last of the pharaohs. After her death, Egypt became a province of the Roman empire and a vital grain-exporting country for the whole Mediterranean area.

Docu-dramas have the perennial problem that talking heads are there to fill in the historical background, the educative function, whilst the drama bits are there to entertain. Mixing the two successfully is far from straightforward and Queen Cleopatra doesn’t even try. Many older Netflix subscribers will remember the 1963 portrayal of Cleopatra by Elizabeth Taylor which would be far too expensive to make today but has a grandiose and realistic section on the battle of Actium. The Egyptian antiques department is so upset by Adele James’ skin colour that yet another film series has been threatened by the Cairo government to set the record straight. Oh no!