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Egyptians and others are upset a Black actress stars in Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new Netflix docudrama "Queen Cleopatra" is stirring debate because the series portrays the iconic monarch as Black. Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities calls the show, quote, "a falsification of Egyptian history," unquote. We wanted to dig into that, so we called Rebecca Futo Kennedy. She is an associate professor at Denison University, and she's an authority on race and ethnicity in antiquity, and she's with us now. Good morning.

REBECCA FUTO KENNEDY: Good morning.

MARTIN: So before we get into the controversy, just tell us about the history. How does the way we think about race today compare to Cleopatra's time?

KENNEDY: So I think we need to recognize that race is not actually these categories of Black and white. That's one of the confusion points. It's actually the political and social system that makes those categories relevant. So if you think about how we organize people historically into different groupings, sometimes in the recent, you know, 2- to 300 years, we've used Black and white, but in the past, they used different categories entirely, usually functioning around culture or religion, sometimes geography. So basically, when we talk about Black and white in antiquity, we're mostly talking about gender distinctions, not what we would call race today. So that's really one of the primary differences.

MARTIN: So what do you think informed the depiction of Cleopatra in this series? And of course, you know, I'm going to ask you is, is it historically, you know, accurate or at least reasonable that she be depicted as Black?

KENNEDY: So what informed us, of course, is a couple of hundred years of debate over what Africa has contributed to, quote-unquote, "civilization." So we've heard a lot of sort of white supremacist discourse in the past that basically says that Africa contributed nothing to civilization, and so this is a way to push back on that. That's been happening since the 19th century to sort of reclaim an ancient past for Black Americans especially, but for Africa, generally speaking. So that's one of the things that sort of is underlying all this.

Now, your question about whether or not it's OK or not OK to portray her as Black - Cleopatra manipulated her own image all the time. She had one face for her coinage and multiple faces for her coinage that went out amongst the Greeks in the Mediterranean and the Romans. And she had a different face that she wore in her Egyptian iconography. So she herself was manipulating her own image for audience. So whether we do this in our own entertainment industry or not seems to be fitting in with her own iconographic tradition.

MARTIN: And there was no photography. (Laughter) So how do we know?

KENNEDY: (Laughter) And there was no photography.

MARTIN: Or AI for that matter. But so...

KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: But while we're at it, just as briefly as you can, why do you think there's been such a focus on her race? And what do you think the backlash against the show in Egypt says about how race or skin color or whatever it is functions there?

KENNEDY: So I hate to pull this one out, but - so there was a quotation recently in a New York Times piece where it talks about Egypt's precarious relationship to Africa itself. And the quote was that it holds membership in the African Union and other continental groups. Then they say, but in Greek and Roman times, historians say, Egypt was a major player in the Mediterranean and a gateway to Africa, rather than fully African. And I think that's the problem, is that we've always wanted to position Egypt as more of a legacy of Europe and not of Africa. And that debate is still raging, and that's why we have such a heavy conflict over this.

MARTIN: That is Rebecca Futo Kennedy. She's an associate professor of classical studies at Denison University. Thanks so much for trying to clear this up for us.

KENNEDY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA RICCA'S "CLEOPATRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.