The decision to cast Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Cleopatra in an upcoming film has seen commentary sink to ever-concerning depths.
If those who tweeted spiteful jibes and penned trite articles would have taken a minute to reflect, they might have realised that this move is hardly as significant or shocking as it seems.
Firstly, placing such emphasis on a film made by the West is neo-colonialist in itself. Why react as if a Hollywood flick is the be-all and end-all of historical storytelling? A character so legendary can never have a definitive depiction. There will no doubt be future iterations of Cleopatra, so it is yet (and has always been) within our power to ensure she is portrayed however we consider fitting.
Despite Egypt’s vast cinematic tradition and capacity, only one homegrown motion picture, thus far, has centred around Cleopatra’s life.
In 1943, the Lama brothers produced a film called Cleopatra, in which Amina Rizk took on the titular role. How come it is not readily available and regularly screened, and why have there been no further local adaptations for us to take pride in and share with foreign audiences?
Secondly, as we will never know Cleopatra’s true skin tone, and innumerable ‘white-presenting’ women have played Cleopatra without being accused of ‘white-washing’, it is clear that a large part of the current issue boils down to politics and religion. However, even this is nothing new, indeed, the outrage is over a century late.
Theodosia Goodman, a Jewish actress, played Cleopatra in 1917 under her stage name Theda Bara. The name was, in fact, an anagram, as Fox Studios stressed while promoting the silent biopic, of ‘Arab death’.
Elizabeth Taylor’s conversion to Judaism and 1959 purchase of Israel Bonds led what was then the United Arab Republic to ban her films, and deny her entry into Egypt to film scenes for Cleopatra, but both bans were eventually lifted after the 1963 epic was deemed good publicity.
Finally, in lieu of cyclically ‘banning’ and ‘cancelling’ individuals, and pinning all our hopes and frustrations on them, we must zoom out and question the bigger ‘yellow-filtered’ picture.
Rather than making-believe as though every misstep or slight is an exceptional lapse by an ordinarily fair, diverse, upstanding industry, we ought to bring down the curtain on all its structural failings — not just the ones which affect those working within it. And instead of being unproductively disappointed, de novo, by every piece of sensationalist news, we should adjust our focus towards quieter but more consequential injustices.
Nadine Loza is a development strategist, opinion columnist, and Founding Director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.