“… heroism of a more subtle variety…”

Image: Theda Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland.

Cleopatra is a 1917 American silent historical drama film based on H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel Cleopatra, the 1890 play Cleopatre by Émile Moreau and Victorien Sardou, and the play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. The film starred Theda Bara in the title role, Fritz Leiber, Sr. as Julius Caesar, and Thurston Hall as Mark Antony. The film is now considered lost, with only fragments surviving.

Hanna Flint wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday this week:

“Cleopatra is once again getting the big screen treatment, this time courtesy of Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and the DC heroine herself, Gal Gadot. But even with a female director, and female screenwriter in Laeta Kalogridis on board, the casting of an Israeli actor with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage as the legendary Queen of Egypt has led to a not unfounded debate about Hollywood whitewashing.

In recent years historians, such as Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, have questioned the long-held belief that Cleopatra VII was white. Scholars agree that there’s no doubt that Cleo was Macedonian-Greek on her father Ptolemy XII’s side, potentially Persian or Syrian too, but because the ethnic origin of her mother remains unverified it has strengthened the idea that the Egyptian ruler was of mixed heritage. “The mother of Cleopatra has been suggested to have been from the family of the priests of Memphis,” Betsy M Bryan, Alexander Badawy professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, told Newsweek. “If this were the case, then Cleopatra could have been at least 50% Egyptian in origin.”…

…One can infer that Gadot’s version of Cleopatra will exhibit heroism of a more subtle variety than her Wonder Woman alter ego; but what are the chances it won’t fall into the trap of white saviourism where, if cast, Egyptian and north African actors are simply present to prop up her narrative? It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Gadot will be next seen in Death on the Nile, a film with an Egyptian setting also which, like its 1978 predecessor, fails to include any north African actors in the main cast – and is yet another example of how cinema colonises foreign regions for its own white-centric purpose.

All this is galling considering recent steps have been to taken to diversify historical storytelling on screen. New precedents were set by the likes of Armando Iannucci’s multicultural Dickens adaptation, with Dev Patel playing David Copperfield. Soon Constance Wu and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù will play romantic leads in the English-set 19th century period comedy Mr Malcolm’s List. The actor Sophie Okonedo played the tragic queen of Egypt in the National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra in 2018.

Gal Gadot has proved herself that a “nobody” can become an A-lister when given the chance to play a massive role. So given what we now understand about the Queen of Egypt’s heritage, and while the battle for better representation for ethnic minorities continues, it seems like a missed opportunity that Cleopatra’s next appearance will be more representative of Hollywood’s past than north Africa’s present.”

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