The topic of cultural appropriation in Hollywood is extremely tricky. Tinseltown has a pretty terrible history of whitewashing roles in historical films that dates back to the earliest films. Remember when John Wayne played Genghis Khan? Or if they needed someone to play a Mexican character in the film, they'd just cast a Jewish guy? What about Ricardo Montalban being passed off as Japanese? Well, now people are asking if Cleopatra was white after Gal Gadot was cast as the Egyptian Queen.
Was Cleopatra white?
Modern-day Egypt is usually conflated with the Middle East due to the fact that the primary language, both written and spoken, is Arabic. A lot of that has to do with the Islamic conquest of Egypt by the Arabs between 639 and 646 AD, which is around the time Islam first began as a religious and socio-political movement.
The Egyptian Empire was absolutely massive and although the nation is located in North Africa, many of its primary rulers were of Mediterranean descent.
As you might have heard I teamed up with @PattyJenks and @LKalogridis to bring the story of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to the big screen in a way she’s never been seen before. To tell her story for the first time through women's eyes, both behind and in front of the camera. pic.twitter.com/k5eyTIfzjB— Gal Gadot (@GalGadot) October 12, 2020
Alexander the Great was Macedonian, as was Cleopatra, who traced her roots back to Greece and Ptolemy I Soter. However, what made Cleopatra such a beloved leader was that she adopted ancient Egyptian customs, and was the first member of the Ptolemic line to actually speak Egyptian. Proving that cultural appropriation has pretty much been around since forever.
A tweet from Sameera Khan speaks to the ire of Gal Gadot's casting as Cleopatra.
Again, because Arab-Islamic influence has presided in Egypt for so long, the fact that Gal Gadot is teaming up with Patty Jenkins to portray the Queen of the Nile is irking a lot of people because of the fact that Gal's Israeli.
It brought up the topic of cultural appropriation, of course, with a lot of people calling for either brown or Black actresses to take up the role.
Which Hollywood dumbass thought it would be a good idea to cast an Israeli actress as Cleopatra (a very bland looking one) instead of a stunning Arab actress like Nadine Njeim?— sameera khan (@SameeraKhan) October 11, 2020
And shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles... smh. https://t.co/GY5tYEcl4K pic.twitter.com/JcrnM1RUQq
Cleopatra was part Greek and part Berber. That’s what we know for sure. Scholars have been debating this topic for centuries now.— sameera khan (@SameeraKhan) October 11, 2020
There was also a chorus of individuals who believed that there are a ton of ethnically Arab actresses who could've been cast as Cleopatra so the role could've been more historically accurate. Predictably, there were opposing voices who focused on the fact that was an issue of skin color and that Cleopatra was more than likely fairer skinned than many of her African subjects of the time period.
For many, the outcry is rooted in the fact that an Israeli woman is portraying an iconic Egyptian and since Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, there's that built in Jewish-Muslim rivalry that's centuries old. But if this is a case of "cultural appropriation" then technically, Arab Muslims really don't have any right to "appropriate" Cleopatra as one of their own.
She was not Middle Eastern, even though she was depicted as such. Nor was she a monotheist. In fact, she embraced a culture that was vilified in both the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Quran. So if someone is trying to argue Gal's casting on a cultural, ethnic, or religious level, there's been a lot of cultural appropriation of Cleopatra going on for a very long time.
Ethnically speaking, Egypt is one of the most diverse countries in North Africa, especially compared to other nations in the Middle East. In addition to large racial demographics from its home continent, there's been a lot of Turkish, Balkan, Greek, and French influences in the area over the years, but in terms of culture and population.
There's a lot of anger directed at @GalGadot for playing #Cleopatra, so if @PattyJenks wants to help mollify that by casting an actual Egyptian of part-Mediterranean descent to play Arsinoe or Berenice, my wife @MariamEliefifi who was born in Alexandria is free & resembles Gal. pic.twitter.com/QjyzXDjxln— Mustafa Gatollari (@TafGato) October 12, 2020
As a Ptolemy, wasn’t Cleopatra ethnically Greek? That said, that’s a far cry from Israeli, and the optics of a Zionist playing the role are definitely tone deaf given current geopolitical dynamics. 🤦🏻♂️— Jason Ramsey (@jramz_dc) October 12, 2020
For many folks though, they felt that casting Gal Gadot was "tone deaf" in the grand geo-political scheme of things. What do you think?
How you gonna cast Gal Gadot to play Cleopatra when Lupita is RIGHT THERE?!?— Justina Ireland (@justinaireland) October 11, 2020
okay this is a thread on why casting gal gadot for queen Cleopatra is so wrong:— ray 🍂 (@lustbarnes) October 11, 2020
(yes i made a whole ass thread about it cause people are defending it which is very offensive to egyptians and arabs in general)
Whatever you think of her being cast as Cleopatra, never forget that Gal Gadot proudly served (and continues to support) a colonial army notorious for maiming and murdering civilians.— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) October 11, 2020