Netflix’s drama-documentary made headlines last month when the Egyptian government denounced it as a “historical fallacy”, because the show insists that Cleopatra was black, said Anita Singh in The Daily Telegraph. No one knows what colour Cleopatra’s skin was, but she is widely believed to have been of Greek-Macedonian descent. So what evidence has the series got to support its theory? Well, it mainly relies on the work of the American academic Shelley Haley who, in the first episode, recalls her grandmother telling her: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.”
And that is that really. As for the rest of the series, it mixes talking heads with historical reconstruction, to explain why Cleopatra “was such a significant figure”. It does that well enough, but ultimately falls between two stools. It’s “too soapy” for history buffs, and not soapy enough to entice fans of “juicy historical dramas”.
Still, Adele James is superb as Cleopatra, said Leila Latif in The Guardian. And the reenactments are “fun”. It is just a shame they are interrupted by interviews with people who seem more “fans than historians”. James is “mesmerising”, agreed Hugo Rifkind in The Times. Other aspects of the casting are more questionable – such as Michael Greco (EastEnders’ Beppe) as a “hairy, sexy” eunuch. But what is perplexing was the decision to mix up enjoyable enough drama with dense explanation, and producer Jada Pinkett Smith intoning things such as, “What is a Pharaoh? She is the sands and the skies and everything in between.” ■