What did Patty Jenkins think when news surfaced that she was to direct Gal Gadot as Cleopatra in a big budget epic for Paramount? How did the studio expect the reports to land?
This is not 1963. When Elizabeth Taylor, a white Anglo-American from Hampstead Garden Suburb, played the role that year, there was little whisper of complaint (or at least not about her race). Few would have asked for a North African actor in 1983 or 1993. In the current century, however, a reasonable desire to deviate from the wasp hegemony has led studios to think more carefully about casting such characters. A breakout performance by Sofia Boutella, born and raised in Algeria, as the title character in the latest version of The Mummy, was the only reason to endure this terrible film.
Gal Gadot, best known for Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, is also from a nearby part of the Mediterranean, but filmmakers will surely be aware of the distinction between casting an Algerian or an Israeli as an Egyptian character. News that Gadot served two compulsory years in the Israel Defense Forces barely stifles potential controversy. Did Jenkins really expect this to go smoothly?
In any case, the news had barely landed before social media blew its collective top. Strangely enough, more than a few correspondents who didn’t seem to know how the film industry has worked in the last few decades wondered why we were getting “another Cleopatra film”. In fact, the last studio feature released in theaters that focused on the Egyptian monarch was the Liz Taylor project from 57 years ago. In earlier decades, Sophia Loren, Vivien Leigh and Claudette Colbert took on the role. If nothing else, we should celebrate Jenkins’ obvious commitment to reviving an old school Hollywood genre: the quasi-historical epic “Sand in the Clapperboard”.
Most of the objections, however, related to the main character’s ethnicity. You have to feel like a Twitter user who has wondered why he cast Gadot and not Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim. Only one of those women was Wonder Woman. Star power is not what it was, but a name still generates some amount of capital.
The broader analysis of the controversy confirmed how difficult it can be to observe racially responsible casting. If you didn’t know Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek descent on Monday, then you knew from Osiris by Friday. Kathryn Bard, Professor of Archeology and Classical Studies at Boston University, was in great demand with our friends Doctor Cut and Professor Paste. “Cleopatra VII was white – of Macedonian descent, as were all of the Ptolemy rulers who lived in Egypt,” she told Newsweek.
The queen actually descended on her father’s side from the Ptolemaic dynasty, which began in the third century BC. Originated from Macedonia (of course I knew all this beforehand). But Betsy M Bryan, Professor of Egyptian Art and Archeology at Johns Hopkins University, is here to remind us we can’t be sure who mother was: “The mother of Cleopatra is said to be from the family of priests Memphis. If it were, Cleopatra could have been at least 50 percent Egyptian in origin. “
Well. So we’re looking for an actor who is definitely Greek and maybe Egyptian too. Few cast members in the Spotlight Cinema Directory fit this category. Why not just settle for a Middle Eastern actor? Well, because nobody knows exactly what that means. Some of the less pleasant online chatters this week focused on Gadot’s Ashkenazi background and her family’s decision to change the name from a Central European version (you can imagine where that line led).
There will not be a completely satisfactory solution to the problem – if you consider it a problem – until a coffin creates an actor from Cleopatra’s miraculously extracted DNA. Even then, the Wiseacres, who pointed out that Cleopatra was known to be far less perceptive than Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor, will complain that her nose is too straight or her hips too thin.
None of this means that the industry’s move towards a more racially sensitive casting is not a good thing. It is essential. The habit of casting actors like the Mexican Anthony Quinn (Greek in Zorba, the Greek) or the Russian Yul Brynner (Thai in the King and I) as all-purpose foreigners will not be missing. The general tolerance towards “black-up” was correctly buried around the turn of the century. Meanwhile, the creative, racially diverse casting in films like The Personal History of David Copperfield opens up a contemporary drama to actors of all origins.
However, the current intense effort to tie a first century BC monarch to a contemporary color wheel seems like an unnecessary distraction. Gal Gadot, who is said to have started the project, must wish she had chosen a project about the making of the 1963 film instead.
I’d see that – even if they didn’t cast a Welshman other than Richard Burton.
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