Cleopatra's exact race is still a matter of debate among historians, academics, and anthropologists. The BBC reported in 2009, "remains of the queen's sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an 'African' skeleton." Because the two women had different mothers, this has contributed to the debate. The Times wrote, "The breakthrough, by an Austrian team, has provided pointers to Cleopatra's true ethnicity. Scholars have long debated whether she was Greek or Macedonian like her ancestor the original Ptolemy, a Macedonian general who was made ruler of Egypt by Alexander the Great, or whether she was north African."
In 2008, Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton rendered a 3D image of what the Queen might have looked like, "pieced together from images on ancient artifacts, including a ring dating from Cleopatra's reign 2,000 years ago, it is the culmination of more than a year of painstaking research," which you can see here. In Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Egyptologist and archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley writes, "Two thousand years after her death Cleopatra still has political relevance, and arguments over her racial heritage -- was Cleopatra black or white? -- inspire fierce debate, with 'black' variously defined as meaning of Egyptian origin, or a person from non-Mediterranean Africa, or any person of color, and 'white' usually being equated with Greek. These definitions in themselves, of course, are open to charges of Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism..." So, as you can see, this is a complicated debate in and of itself up in the Ivory Tower of Academia.
As Essence.com's Shirea L. Carroll posted, this role could have easily gone to such actresses as Halle Berry (which would have renewed the Oscar-winner's flagging career), the criminally underused Thandie Newton, or, in my opinion, Kerry Washington, whose performance in the upcoming Night Catches Us is stunning. Another excellent choice would be Zoe Saldana, as New York's Vulture blog points out. She is certainly queenly as a giant blue alien in Avatar and is already being pegged as the next Angelina Jolie but perhaps she's too multicultural for a major studio to hire her to carry a film?
The discussion of race and casting in Hollywood is quite tense among fans and critics these days, especially if you look at recent conversations about the casting of Idris Elba as a Nordic god in Thor or the ongoing discussion of race in The Last Airbender. In the case of Thor, the issue is more complex since it's based on a comic book, but the world of Nordic gods were Aryan.
Jolie is majestic and gorgeous, but she is definitely white. The photos of her with her skin darkened with makeup for the role of Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart drew considerable criticism, although, having not seen the movie, I can't speak to whether or not Jolie was an appropriate choice for the lead. It was, however, fairly well reviewed. So this isn't a controversy that Jolie hasn't sparked in the past. In a day and age when there are few enough leading ladies that can get a movie greenlit on their own star power, it's no wonder that they went with a safe and sexy choice like Jolie. As one of the most famous women in the world, she's a solid choice from a studio standpoint to play the Queen of the Nile, despite the fact that she's often more convincing (or popular) as an action star than a serious dramatic actor.
Is this more of an issue with the studios not having faith in the star power of a leading lady of color? Perhaps you're saying to yourself, well, there really aren't any non-white actors who have the same box office draw as Jolie, but ask yourself why that is, and you might find that it's because studios would rather go with a safe choice than the best choice. Or is Jolie herself the best choice, and this is much ado about political correctness? In any case, this is certainly a missed opportunity to present a multicultural face as a strong leading lady.
Sound off in the comments.
Note: This is an edit of today's earlier post on Jolie's casting, expanded to include the debate raging about Cleopatra's race.