Racially Insensitive Casting: “Cleopatra” Through the Years

Cleopatra is, historically, an African queen. An Egyptian queen, to be exact, with mixed African and Greek heritage. However, her Greek heritage is one of the only times a large swath of the white Western world will use the one-drop rule in reverse. Usually, if a person has one drop of non-white heritage, they’re instantly not white. But instead with Cleopatra, her drop of Greek heritage makes her white to those who want to claim Egyptian culture as white culture. 

Let’s take a romp through the whitewashed Cleopatras of Hollywood, starting in 1912’s Cleopatra with Helen Gardner:

Cleopatra (1917, starring Theda Bara)—This is the only footage found of this film.

Cleopatra (1934, starring Claudette Colbert)

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945, starring Vivien Leigh)

Cleopatra (1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra)

It goes on and on and on. Meanwhile, here’s what forensic scientists believe Cleopatra actually looked like:

Image-Foundry-CleopatraCrazy, huh? She’s actually dark-skinned. Who would have guessed? (Please note my sarcasm.) What do you think about Hollywood’s obsession with whitewashing Egyptian culture? Write about it in the comments section below. You can also read my linked post above to learn more history behind the allure of claiming Egyptian and North African cultures as white culture (or is believed to not be culture at all, in the case of the Kingdom of Kush, which rarely gets discussed in the Western world.)

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra. Screencap of Image Foundry’s reconstruction of Cleopatra, as featured on their site and Daily Mail


2 thoughts on “Racially Insensitive Casting: “Cleopatra” Through the Years”

  1. I was often confused about this too, ever since my Mother explained to me, as a child, that Egyptians were Black people. As an adult , I figure, it’s just part of the general erasure of Black culture.

    It’s part and parcel of teaching Af- Am, that we are nothing, because we come from nothing, and teaching us that we have no connection to the rest of the world. (Isn’t that how abusers treat their partners, by cutting them off from any foundational support and teaching that the abuser is all they have?)


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