There’s some strong, negative reaction to the casting of a woman of mixed-race heritage to portray Cleopatra in a Netflix series. There’s some unpacking to do, here, if we want to understand some of the criticisms of that casting choice…
Once upon a time, it was shocking at the very idea about having a woman character portrayed by an actual woman. I think Hugh Grant should be cast as Cleopatra, as he is a great English Man. 😀 But seriously, in Shakespeare’s day, Cleopatra was portrayed by and Englishman.
Taking Shakespeare as an example, I see nothing wrong with casting people of any background in any role, as everything he did was fictional. Therefore, let it be known that plays like Henry V are about the acting and the story and not the historical accuracy. When Shakespeare’s characters actually do have a particular racial or ethnic background of a group that has been historically persecuted, such as the Jews in A Merchant of Venice and Othello the Moor in Othello, that’s where things get touchy these days. The Shylock character in A Merchant of Venice used to be played as a straight-up villain until around the 19th Century. In the film adaptation of that play, Al Pacino played the role of Shylock – I think that’s fine, as part of acting is becoming someone who you are not and to interpret the role, rather than show up as a reasonable facsimile of a character and say a few words before stepping offstage.
That gets to the role of Othello and the shifting meaning of “black” as a skin tone. In Shakespeare’s day, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots could be called “black” not because of their dark skin tones, but because they happened to not have red hair or other very fair-complected attributes. Indians, Arabs, North Africans, all got lumped together as “blacks” even before we get to Sub-Saharan Africa. But modern sensibilities have settled on on Othello being much darker in skin tone and the role is typically given to a person of African dissent… except when Sir Laurence Olivier took on the role… and in 1997, when Patrick Stewart took the role in a “photonegative” production of the play, with all other roles going to persons of African descent. In the Hindi film Omkara, the Othello character is played by Ajay Devgan, who has a very dark complexion.
So that gets to presentations that attempt to document things as we think they were. Thing is, we do not know who made up Cleopatra’s matrilineal line. We have strong suspicions on who was Cleopatra’s mother, and that she was close kin to Cleopatra’s father. So that makes her highly likely to be Macedonian in background. If I was going to cast a historical re-enactment, accuracy would point towards a lighter skin tone for Cleopatra. But if there are fictional elements involved, then there’s no restriction. Cast She-Hulk in the role, for all I care. That’s the Netflix series. It’s fictionalized, so I don’t think casting choices matter. Jada Pinkett-Smith is in charge of the project, so she’s going to cast people she thinks are best for the role who she’s sympathetic to, which I do see as an improvement on the Harvey Weinstein model…
… and since Ms. Pinkett-Smith is Executive Producer, she’s got final say on who gets what part, as has any EP before her. She got the funding together, so she’s in charge.
Then there’s the matter of what exactly “woke” means. It emerged as a term in the 1930s among African-Americans to refer to being aware of systemic racism in US society, even where Segregationist laws were not formally in place to enforce a systemic racism. New Deal economic programs required Southern backing to pass through Congress, so they had strict racially-biased clauses in them that instituted nationwide racial discrimination in those federal programs. The Armed Forces were racially segregated. The G.I. Bill, passed to assist veterans of WW2 with access to housing, education, and job training, was for whites only. Beyond that, redlining of neighborhoods existed – Blacks were not allowed to move into certain neighborhoods because banks would refuse to lend and insurers would refuse to insure the homes the Blacks wanted to purchase. Being “woke” meant being aware of those systems, which persisted over many decades.
An important part of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA was extending that awareness to persons outside the Black population. As whites became aware and developed political sympathy with Blacks to oppose Segregation, discrimination in federal programs, and unofficial practices such as redlining, interesting linguistic developments appeared in the USA.
Segregation became a dirty word of sorts. So much so that persons in favor of it would publicly state that they were against it, but that the Civil Rights Movement was asking for too much or it was pushing too fast for changes or some other line that advocated keeping things largely as they were with some token concessions that did not undermine the full framework of Segregationist legalism and tradition. James Baldwin explored that in his essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation” where he points out that William Faulkner’s description of fewer blacks lynched in Mississippi in recent years as “progress” is hardly comforting to the community that is the target of the lynchings, and that a gradualist approach there is illogical. Nevertheless, the word segregation was on the way out and discussions of violent crime, demographic changes, bad neighborhoods, and voter fraud became covers for proposing pro-Segregationist laws and policies. The concerns, in general terms, are concerns to one and all. But the laws and policies put forward to deal with the issues routinely tended towards disproportionately impacting Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans – basically any non-White population.
Over time, pro-Segregationist discussions began to include assumptions of equality of power and then argue against Affirmative Action and Black History Month from that false assumption. The fact was that the ending of restrictions, when it happened, did nothing to restore the lost opportunities of home ownership, business development, or educational opportunities. Simply ending restrictions and doing nothing to work with the legacy of centuries of discrimination essentially leaves the existing power inequality where it is, and provides Segregationists the political power to gradually restore their policies and practices that ensure Whites benefit economically and politically and socially from non-Whites being kept in an inferior position. The real answer to the question “Why is there no preferential hiring for Whites?” is that there already is such a system in place, very well embedded despite its informal nature. “Why is there no White History Month?” That’s how History used to be written, from a Eurocentric bias that made all 12 months White History Month or, more exactly, White Anglo-American History Month. Things such as Black History Month are part of the program to extend awareness of the Black experience and to develop sympathy for all Americans. In such, it is a threat to Segregationism and is attacked by them.
That’s not to say that such things are misinterpreted or misapplied by those favorable to them. Too many people see assimilation as a solution to racial problems. But, when the ideal is assumed to be the White culture and lifestyle, the inherent racism in assimilation is seen, granted that it is much softer in application than die-hard Segregationism. Too many people see making token gestures of sympathy or public statements as sufficient, but all that they’ve done is to build up their own brand without truly having a desire to make the world outside their house a better place. I’ve seen firsthand how White suburbanites have demanded better quality schools for Black neighborhoods shift in their language and support when it was revealed to them that their own children benefited from the unequal and illegal ways the school administration shifted funds around. Sadly, I have seen how people like that can become shrill in their posturing as they remain sympathetic to the current system in their private lives.
But in recent years in the USA, people with Segregationist sympathies have become more open about them. This is where the word “woke” takes another turn, in that it is now used by those who favor Segregationism to ironically attack those who are working to end it, once and for all. It joins “carpetbagger” and “scalawag” as terms pro-Segregationists have used to attack their opponents, by creating a term that makes them an “other”, a less-than-full-human that they can feel justified in defending the status quo against. In my view, there is no “woke culture” outside of those who are aware of existing power inequalities and who wish for them to be addressed so that all persons in a society can live peacefully and have reasonable expectations that they won’t be discriminated against negatively because of a personal attribute. Both my wife and son have faced job discrimination because their names, when you Google on them, produce overwhelmingly Black people with the same name. My daughters and myself don’t have that happen. The outcome is that, more often that not, me and my daughters get call-backs on jobs we apply for with resumes and my wife and son do not. Their names pass for Black and that has impacted their employment options in a negative way. They’re anecdotal examples of a measured phenomenon about discriminatory biases in hiring practices – and how automated systems have also automated those biases.
Back to this show, it’s the executive producer’s call about casting. As for the facts, I’ve seen people attacking “woke culture” themselves move to suppress discussion about the facts surrounding slavery and Segregation – facts with far more impact on the lives of people today than the racial identity of a person portraying a queen from 2000 years ago. Project 1619 is constantly attacked, but why? It’s because it brings up actual facts that undermine the legitimacy of a pro-Segregationist status quo that benefits a White elite at the expense of non-Whites.
As for the Egyptians up in arms about the casting choice, I’ll say this: there’s a different history of racial discrimination in play, there. I’m sticking to the American criticisms, which I am much more familiar with.