Queen Cleopatra is a towering figure in world history who was immortalized by Shakespeare in his tragic play Antony & Cleopatra, a love story of two powerful leaders who succumbed to love and jealousy, or is that what the famous playwright meant through his literature? When we think of Queen Cleopatra, we think of the unmatched beauty of Egypt, who bathed in milk, and we think of Elizabeth Taylor encapsulating the beauty of the Pharaoh in such a way that it is still hard to imagine another actor in the role other than the iconic Hollywood actress. But the new Netflix Original documentary series about the famous Queen of Egypt is not interested in talking just about the doomed love story. Directors Tina Gharavi and Victoria Adeola Thomas tell us the tale of the politician and leader that the Queen was, who managed to stay strong till the end.
The documentary begins with an American professor, Shelley Haley, recalling what her grandmother would tell her about the representation of Cleopatra in textbooks. Her grandmother was sure that Cleopatra was black, and she specifically asked a young school going Shelley to not believe what is being taught to her about this famous Queen from the bygone era. No matter what they teach you in school about Cleopatra, please remember that she was black.” The documentary begins with a discussion of the race of the venerable and alluring Queen, which has been a topic of debate for a while in the wake of the subject of inclusivity. The Hollywood of the past conveniently whitewashed many of the historical and mythical figures who were all born in the Middle East, North Africa, or the Mediterranean. Though it was considered okay half a century ago, it is not acceptable anymore to misrepresent anyone. Remember the cult classic The Ten Commandments (1956) and the very recent Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)? The documentary Queen Cleopatra is quick to bring up the race of this Queen, who was said to have Macedonian roots, which brings us to the current casting in this series. Yes, the director probably wanted to make a political statement, but decided to cast English-speaking British actress Adele James to play the titular role. If one wants to talk about inclusivity, how about casting an ethnic Egyptian actress to play the role? Wouldn’t that have brought genuineness to the table? Just putting questions out for people to contemplate.
Coming back to what the documentary focuses on, Tina and Victoria take us through the life of Cleopatra, who was born in the royal Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt for quite some time, and was also considered the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Egypt would grow the food, and the entire Roman Empire would reap the benefits of it. Cleopatra was raised with all the privileges of a princess, and that would include education as well. She was surrounded by knowledge in the form of the large library of Alexandria, where she taught herself the Egyptian language as well. With her father, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII’s passing, and her being the oldest daughter, she and her brother Ptolemy XIII had to get married as per her father’s will and rule the dynasty as co-regents. Ptolemy XIII’s advisor, Pothinus, who wanted absolute power, pushed his Pharaoh to work against his sister-wife. Cleopatra was the smarter of the pair and managed to run away from Egypt, far away from all of her siblings, who wanted her dead. This is one of the many challenges Pharaoh Cleopatra faces on her long journey to become the only one, the immaculate Queen Cleopatra. Will she get back what is rightfully hers, and how will she manage to keep the Roman Empire at bay? Her political maneuvering with the Roman leader Julius Caesar, followed by the commander of the Roman Army, Mark Antony, is something everyone knows about, but what are the political moves made by the Queen as per the historical records? Was there more to her than making sure Egypt stayed independent?
Kudos to Tina and Victoria for showcasing to the world through this documentary the version of Queen Cleopatra who was a politician and leader, which is never showcased or talked about whenever there is a discussion about her. People always jump into talking about her beauty. There was more to her than being a beautiful woman. If she wasn’t smart, she wouldn’t have maintained a strong political influence on the northern African region, and she wouldn’t have had the backing of the Egyptians. She was an influential person who knew what button to press to make sure the people supported her and the ally she was seeking would support her too. Her relationship with Julius Caesar, followed by her impression of him as working for the betterment of Egypt, is something that can be said to be a statement of a leader who knows what the right thing would be to do at what time. Her journey felt a lot like that of Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones,” or rather, George R.R. Martin took inspiration from Queen Cleopatra to create Daenerys Targaryen. The story was a significant part of the entire documentary series. The tale of ancient history is always fascinating to comprehend.
The story Tina and Victoria brought out was interesting, but the way these stories were presented felt more like reading a textbook. The words, the narration, and the information given out about the Queen and her political and military campaigns did not come across as extraordinary; the problem was with the screenplay. The screenplay is supposed to tell the tale of the intelligent Queen most engagingly, but the screenplay is banal and dry. This did not make the viewing experience exciting at all. There must be a sense of interest in this historical figure. We need more than just visuals and experts speaking about what made Cleopatra the Queen that she was. The amount of time the writers spent on the topic of how Queen Cleopatra’s child with Julius Caesar united the two greatest empires was exhausting after a point. Just like this one, the way many of the plot points from the screenplay were addressed felt like they were beating around the bush just to prove one point. How about giving us something we do not know about or presenting the story in such a manner that it does not feel like we are sitting in a classroom? Personally, history is my favorite subject, and Egyptian history is a fascinating topic, but to make that part of world history vapid is just upsetting.
The screenplay felt too dramatic even while the experts talked about it, as did the actors who performed as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony. The dialogue is cheesy. There is a specific scene in the documentary where the Queen is aware of a war raging against her kingdom, and as a queen, she must be aware that there is a high chance of an enemy trying to knock the city doors down. As she hears the first bang, Cleopatra’s first reaction is, “What’s that sound?” How is a leader like her, who has been on the run and fought a civil war with her siblings, to have such questions when she is aware of the oncoming onslaught from the Roman forces? Scenes like these make us question the screenplay and the dialogue. There is also one of the professors at the end who talks about how she started working on Queen Cleopatra for her research. The said professor claims a shadowy Middle Eastern ancient woman came to her in her dream to let her know her story needed to be told. A dream made her pick up her research topic. Sounds absurd. The documentary should have given us knowledge about this historical figure, but everything we came across was uninteresting. I wish their documentary had something new to show in the series because, apart from letting us know how Cleopatra passed and what happened to her lineage, no other things mentioned in the miniseries came across as out of the box or different from usual storytelling.
The documentary could have been far more interesting than it was presented. Cleopatra, as a figure, is a highly underrated politician and thinker. She was more than just a beauty. The screenplay could have been more creative in presenting this story. Queen Cleopatra, the documentary miniseries, is an average watch because of its laid-back retelling of a story about a woman who was a fascinating figure.