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Netflix’s Perverse Plutarch Pastiche

That the Cleopatra series is being directed by Jada Pinkett Smith is enough to make anyone believe in karma.

Marble statue of Cleopatra. (Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock)

I became aware of furious Greek and Egyptian op-eds about the forthcoming new Netflix series on Cleopatra VII Philopator after I had the misfortune of watching the trailer. It is almost comical. In it—I am not making this up—a woman of advanced age sagely opines that no matter what anyone tells you in school, her grandmother said that Cleopatra was black, and that’s that. 

Following this, a petition started by two Egyptians began circulating, criticizing Hollywood’s “Afrocentrism” and calling for the preservation of the true history of both Greeks and Egyptians. Apparently, the phenomenon evinced by Netflix is now called “blackwashing”. Cleopatra, is also not the first or only woman to be “blackwashed”: Anne Boleyn and Queen Charlotte have also gotten the treatment. It gives “black history” a whole new meaning. 


Cleopatra was, of course, not black. She was Ptolemaic Greek and Macedonian, the only ever Greek ruler (under Roman suzerainty) who managed to, at least vaguely, learn the native language of the land she ruled as a foreigner. She is therefore a figure close to both Greeks and Egyptians. Roman depictions of her show a proud and sculpted Grecian nose bridge, with pale skin and reddish hair, although that might just be bad dye in an old painting. 

Cleopatra was, however, in the words of Plutarch, a phenomenal woman; cynical, ruthless, extremely intelligent, and animalistically jealous, enough to be a proximate cause in the civil war of one of the greatest empires in the history of humanity. Not quite good looking, but a woman whom scores of red-blooded men would gladly follow into battle and give their lives for. He reports: 

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. 

Plutarch also hints at Cleopatra being fluent in at least nine languages. 

"It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice," as she spoke fluently with “the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian."


Her fate—namely, that a couple of millennia after her death, she would have the misfortune of her character being violated in a TV series by someone of the intellectual caliber of Jada Pinkett Smith—is almost enough to make anyone believe in the concept of karma. 

The cause is simple. This is the ultimate endpoint of what I call the “1619 School of History.” Here, truth and facts have no meaning, and the only thing that matters is demonstrable power, usually over you, dear reader. It is, in simple words, falsifying history to create an alternate historical and artistic starting point, a year zero for the future generations to come. 

That is why you see the desecration of Tolkien by Amazon in the name of diversity and representation, instead of new stories by new authors. This is why one can observe the co-opting of historical figures to destroy historical accuracy. 

This keeps happening—and only in one direction—because of a simple reason. You possibly cannot see this slow artistic coloration by a very specific ideology, because it is all around you, from TV shows, to movies, to revisionist history books. And because this incessant revisionism is not talked about openly, the discussion is often underground and is often the domain of prejudiced animus. 

But the reality is that this is far more subversive and banal at the same time. Historical revisionism is the ultimate refuge of ideological fanatics who want to distort history, and of unoriginal midwit bureaucrats in film and TV production who do it for money. We will not see Hugh Jackman playing Nelson Mandela. But we might see Whoopi Goldberg or Dylan Mulvaney, as a Twitter anon pointed out, someday playing the queen of Jhansi, or Hypatia, or Joan of Arc. 

Now, for the sake of historical accuracy, one is compelled to remind here that this is slightly different when it comes to enacting a play, or a literary adaptation. I have seen Polynesian schoolchildren put on a phenomenal production of Hamlet in New Zealand. Macbeth has inspired Hindi movies in a setting of North Indian feudal disputes. But neither of them claims the mantle of historical accuracy. 

Relax, it’s just another stupid TV series, you might say. And yet it should make you furious. It is a war on truth itself, one that will provide millions of impressionable minds with an entrenched false narrative. History, as a discipline, is different than just narrative, simply because, despite their inevitable human biases, historians should at least aspire to be detached and neutral as a duty to the future generations—Tacitus’s standard of sine ira et studio. There’s a certain quiet inward glory in being that detached from every side. 

It is not untrue that the millions of Indian soldiers who helped Britain prevail in the two world wars have either been forgotten or their memories deliberately suppressed, both in Britain and India for different reasons. There is a decent argument to be made that the Indian nobility and minor aristocracy were far more welcomed in the higher social circles of late Edwardian England than an Irish farmer, and that class was a much more important dynamic in the British Empire than race. But it would be laughable to have Priyanka Chopra play Queen Elizabeth I leading against the Spanish Armada. 

One might not be affected by historical inaccuracy in art to the degree that I am. But this is something that overcomes the Stoic in me and turns me into the Ancient Mariner, fingers writhing and froth at the mouth, seething with silent rage. This is what will remain for the future, not truth, but just a faint ideological dye similar to Cleopatra’s painting, where everything is standpoint epistemology, holding up a mirror to the present and calling it “history.” When nothing is about truth, and everything is just power and domination, one might as well just either submit, or rebel.


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