Wonder Woman 1984 may or may not come out this December, but that uncertainty is not getting in the way of Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot reteaming for a third time, for a new biopic of everyone’s favorite Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. Jenkins will direct the film which will be written by Laeta Kalgoridis, making this the first Cleopatra movie made by women.
Of course, the most famous Cleopatra film is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s famously troubled 1963 epic, and Angelina Jolie had a Cleo project get stuck in development hell, so best wishes to Jenkins and Gadot as they embark on what has always been, in the literal entire history of cinema, one of the toughest subjects to tackle.
There is some backlash to this casting announcement, though. Many people are calling this a case of whitewashing, as Gadot is Israeli and Cleopatra is, er, we don’t really know. There is a sculpture purported to be of Cleopatra that is of a woman with a strong nose. Coins minted during her reign also depict Cleopatra with a strong nose, and a strong jaw.
Those features may have been exaggerated, though, emphasizing “masculine” traits as a way of reinforcing Cleopatra’s image of strength and the connection to her father with her people, most of whom would never glimpse her in person to know any different if she looked another way.
She part of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which is of Macedonian-Greek extraction, and her parentage is unknown. Her father is Ptolemy XII and her mother is maybe Cleopatra V—an assumption that seems based more on convenience as Cleopatra V is the only confirmed wife of Ptolemy XII—but there’s no definitive proof. Even ancient historians can’t agree, with Plutarch calling her “not altogether incomparable” while Cassius Dio calls her “a woman of surpassing beauty”.
One thing is certain, though, and that is that she was not Egyptian as we understand it today. The Ptolemaic pharaohs were proudly Hellenistic, making Greek the official language of the Egyptian empire, and frequently intermarrying within their own Hellenistic gene pool. The odds of Cleopatra being an inbred Hellene are high.
So rather than argue over who gets to portray Cleopatra, let’s question why there has never been a feature film about Nefertiti, another famously beautiful Egyptian queen who reigned during a turbulent time. She and Akhenaten tried to overthrow the pantheon of Egyptian gods! They were wildly unpopular! There were revolts! King Tut was her stepson! We’re only obsessed with Cleopatra because of Shakespeare, I am convinced. If he had written a tragedy about Nefertiti, there would be half a dozen movies about her by now.
But religious reformation and ensuing popular revolts were a tetchy subject in Shakespeare’s day, so instead he wrote about how getting married doomed a powerful queen, a rather unsubtle way of supporting Elizabeth I’s perpetual singledom. And now Gal Gadot is playing Cleopatra and a bunch of people are mad about it, and I’m still waiting for that Hedy Lamarr biopic, so no one is getting what they want. It’s very 2020.