Angelina Jolie vs Lady Gaga: why the Cleopatra movie backlash misses the point

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga are said to be the final choices for a forthcoming biopic. But the more pertinent question is why we’re getting another Cleopatra movie at all.

Almost 1500 years before the birth of Christ, the second female pharaoh in the history of Egypt ascended to the throne.

She ruled for 15 years in a time of peace and prosperity, enhancing trade routes and overseeing an ambitious building program that saw the construction of key temples and infrastructure in the kingdom. Her reign, the longest for a female pharaoh in the history of Ancient Egypt, saw the proliferation of national wealth and the dawn of an architectural renaissance in the country. By any yardstick that you choose to measure it, she was a remarkable leader.

Which Egyptian pharaoh do you think I am talking about here? If you said Cleopatra, arguably the most famous of the Ancient female rulers, you’d be incorrect. 

This is the story of Hatshepsut, long considered one of the most formidable Egyptian queens by historians but completely obliterated from the canon of popular culture. She has never been the subject of a movie, although a short film directed by Sonia Machado-Hines is currently in production.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra

Cleopatra, on the other hand, has featured in more than 20 movies, television shows and animated features. Famously, the Egyptian queen has been portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh onscreen. And, according to a rumour out of Hollywood today, a new biopic about the ruler is in the works, with both Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga down to the final two actresses being considered for the part.

Jolie has long been associated with the film, which has been in the works at Sony since before the infamous email hack at the film studio in 2014. In 2018, Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve was being eyed to take the helm. Gaga’s name was thrown in the ring this year following her tour de force performance in A Star Is Born

When the news hit Twitter today, a debate immediately emerged about whether or not Jolie and Gaga were suitable actresses to play the role of Cleopatra. Some accused their potential casting of whitewashing the Egyptian queen in the manner of most Hollywood movies set in the Ancient world. Just think of Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods and Kings or Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia

Others maintained that, in fact, Cleopatra was descended from a Greek/Macedonian general and, therefore, was ethnically white. 

Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods and Kings

In truth, no-one really knows Cleopatra’s racial background, in part because Ancient Egypt didn’t exactly keep births, deaths and marriages records, but also because there is some debate about whether or not her mother was ethnically African. (Archaeologists who discovered the tomb of Cleopatra’s sister in Ephesus, Turkey in 2009 maintain that the remains of the skeleton indicated African ethnicity.) By the time Cleopatra was born, her family had lived and ruled in Egypt for 300 years. It is easy to agree with Egyptologists who argue that Cleopatra was a mixed-race woman.

But this debate completely misses the point. It’s a no-brainer that the role of Cleopatra in this new movie should finally go to a BAME actor, especially considering that in the most famous iterations of Cleopatra’s story onscreen thus far she has always been portrayed by a white woman. It’s 2019, and it’s time that her story is told by a black actress, no matter what you think about her racial background.

But the more important question the news about this film should be raising is why we’re making another Cleopatra movie at all. 

Cleopatra wasn’t what you would call a successful ruler. Her reign was the last by a woman of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which swept into power in Egypt on the coattails of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy Soter. Cleopatra’s story is often told through the tragedy of her personal life, which involved first a relationship with Julius Caesar and then one with Mark Antony. It was the latter relationship that kick started the final war of the Roman Republic, with Mark Antony on one side and emperor Octavian on the other. When Mark Antony lost the battle both he and Cleopatra committed suicide.

It’s not hard to see why Cleopatra’s story has proven so compellingly enduring. It has everything: high drama, war, betrayal, tragedy and lots of sex. Its motifs, from the tale of Cleopatra leaping from a rolled carpet to seduce Caesar to the infamous death-by-asp, are breathlessly melodramatic. She has a great story, and it is one Hollywood has long loved to tell. In more than 20 different iterations. 

But isn’t it time that Hollywood moved on? We’d love for the stories of other Ancient female rulers to be told, whether it’s Hatshepsut or Nefertiti, the beautiful ancient Egyptian queen and architect of the sun cult. 

Or what about Amina, queen for 34 years in Nigeria and one of the greatest warriors in her kingdom? Candace, the Ethiopian Empress, was another fearsome fighter, who held her ground against Alexander the Great. Looker wider into the rest of the ancient world, we’d love to see a movie about Semiramis, the only woman who ever ruled over the vast Assyrian empire.

Hollywood needs to get over its obsession with telling the same stories over and over again and open its eyes to the variety of female-led narratives available throughout history. 

And when those movies are made, they better star diverse actors and actresses. 

Images: Getty


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel. Follow her on Twitter

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