Queen Cleopatra: When creative liberty goes horribly wrong


Poster of Netflix's 'Queen Cleopatra' that aired on May 10, 2023. FILE PHOTO | POOL

After a 160-minute marathon of consuming Queen Cleopatra on Netflix, I slouch on the couch, pondering if all the buzz was worth it.

Just a month ago, the trailer for this docudrama miniseries ignited YouTube. The producers, including Jada Pinkett, made a peculiar choice to re-imagine Cleopatra by making her skin colour dark – or as the internet likes to call it, they “blackwashed” Cleopatra.

Historically, it is a well-established truth that Hollywood, both in its past and even in some contemporary productions, has been prone to exercising its creative liberties when it comes to the portrayal of historical figures, markedly exemplified in the case of Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor's iconic rendition of this historical figure comes to mind, which, while captivating in its own right, tended to lean towards a portrayal of Cleopatra as white.

However, let us delve into the depths of factual examination and engage in a more comprehensive understanding of this matter.

Cleopatra VII Philopator was Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC, her heritage reveals an intricate tapestry of influences.

While her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, hailed from Greece, an indubitable fact, scant knowledge is available regarding her mother's lineage.

This dearth of information provides an intriguing opportunity for filmmakers and storytellers to exercise their artistic licence and make interpretive choices regarding her ancestral background.

In this particular case, the director and the producer, as elucidated through interviews with esteemed publications such as Variety, undertook a conscious decision to re-imagine Cleopatra as a “person of colour”.

This artistic choice aligns with the acknowledged ambiguity surrounding Cleopatra's maternal lineage.

By embracing this creative liberty and imbuing her character with a darker tone, the director endeavours to evoke a plausible representation of Cleopatra's heritage, given the limited historical data available.

Controversy has long been a strategic tool employed by the entertainment industry, particularly in Hollywood, to effectively market their films and TV shows.

However, in the current era of streaming and subscription-based platforms, convincing the average person to adopt yet another subscription service has become increasingly challenging.

As a result, effective marketing and exposure have become vital for survival amidst the ongoing streaming wars.

Given these circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that Netflix welcomed the controversy surrounding the Queen Cleopatra series.

Nevertheless, it is important to differentiate between mere controversy and the actual quality of the show.

Therefore, the critical question remains: Did the Queen Cleopatra series live up to expectations?

Before we dissect the show it is important to understand the genre that houses this show.

A docudrama is a genre commonly found in television and film, It typically incorporates elements such as expert analysis presented in a documentary style, intermittent voice-overs, and dramatised portrayals of events as described by the experts.

Elements that worked

Adele James stood out as the standout professional in the room, delivering her lines effortlessly and fully embodying the script's requirements. Her ability to navigate complex emotional scenes in this dramatisation was impressive.

The format of the show, a docudrama, presented the slightly complex figure and story of Cleopatra in a more digestible way.

It provided an enjoyable alternative for those who are not particularly fond of documentaries.

John Partridge's portrayal of Caesar was visually striking, with defined features and a presence that closely aligned with what one would expect from such a figure.

His performance was noteworthy, and his appearance even had me thinking he would make a great Dracula.

The format of the show effectively made the content accessible to those who find documentaries too formal.

The dramatisation eliminated the need to create mental images, allowing viewers to simply relax and enjoy.

The pacing, thanks to clever editing, keeps things fresh and interesting ensuring that the viewer is engaged at all times.

What did not work

The artistic execution of the aforementioned performance encountered several obstacles. With the exception of Adele, the majority of the cast delivered lacklustre performances, appearing as though they were merely reciting lines from a teleprompter.

Their delivery felt rigid and unconvincing, failing to capture the essence of their characters.

Notably, Marc Anthony, Octavian, Cleopatra's brother, and her sister exhibited particularly subpar portrayals.

Furthermore, while Caesar possessed a visually suitable appearance, his performance seemed more akin to that of a stage play rather than a captivating television production.

Another aspect that fell short was the set design, particularly concerning the interior scenes.

They exuded an overt stage-like quality, lacking the immersive realism required for a screen adaptation.

Although the implementation of lighting techniques created an illusion of grandeur in certain scenes, the overall effect proved superficial, leaving one with a lingering impression of theatricality.

In contrast, the exterior shots and wide takes were visually appealing, albeit with a lingering sense of emptiness.

In our modern world, diversity and representation hold significant importance in the realm of entertainment.

Considering the historical period and the multicultural nature of Egypt, the show's portrayal of diversity appears to be its most credible aspect.

However, this portrayal of diversity falls into the trap of what can be described as "trophy diversity," wherein individuals of diverse backgrounds are awkwardly positioned or portrayed in the background in a scene, primarily for the purpose of creating an illusion of inclusivity.

While the show's format facilitated ease of consumption, the intermittent inclusion of dramatisation and expert commentary proved to be a disruptive element.

The tonal disparity between the soap opera-like dramatisation and the inclusion of expert talking heads momentarily detached the viewer from the immersive experience.

Unfortunately, this approach sometimes polarises the audience, for instances where conflicting claims regarding aspects such as skin colour arise.

Throughout the four episodes, one cannot help but perceive that the show was meticulously crafted, scripted, and cleverly edited to celebrate the modern woman, albeit through the lens of the renowned historical figure, Cleopatra.

Consequently, the show, although based on true events, is moulded to emphasize and amplify specific facets of Cleopatra that resonate with contemporary ideals of femininity.

This departure from an accurate depiction of historical events classifies the show as a work of fictionalized drama rather than a faithful docudrama.

All in all

In summary, the performance suffered from lacklustre portrayals by most of the cast, a staging aesthetic that failed to transcend the boundaries of the screen, and a portrayal of diversity that felt contrived.

The intermittent inclusion of experts disrupted the immersive experience, while the show's underlying focus on modern ideals and its deviation from historical accuracy blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

It would have been more fitting for the show to embrace a fully fictionalised approach rather than attempting to adhere to the constraints of a docudrama.

As I reflect upon this, it becomes evident that the enduring legacy of this show will be shaped by the controversy it has stirred, rather than the lacklustre quality of the product crafted by Jada Pickett and her team.

Had they sought to exercise creative liberty with this female figure, it would have been wise to adopt a similar approach to the 1963 movie—an approach that rendered it a work of fiction.

Twitter: @stanslausmanthi

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