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Almost all of the actresses who’ve played Cleopatra have been white. But was she?

Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga are rumored to be contenders to play the queen in a new biopic.

Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra.
Liz Taylor in 1963’s Cleopatra.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

What did Cleopatra look like? A debate about the last real ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom has raged all day on Twitter in light of reports that Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie are competing to play the ancient monarch in a blockbuster biopic from Sony. While IMDb lists a Cleopatra film as being in development, for now it’s just conjecture that Jolie, who played the Queen of Macedonia in 2004’s Alexander, is going head to head with Gaga over the role.

Since meaty roles for women are still too few in Hollywood, landing the character could be the chance of a lifetime for any actress. But the Twitter debate about Cleopatra isn’t so much about which actress most resembles the ancient queen as whether a white woman should be playing her at all.

Historically, white actresses such as Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, and, most famously, Elizabeth Taylor have portrayed Cleopatra. The thinking during Hollywood’s Golden Age seemed to be that kohl eyeliner and a black wig was all it took to transform any white woman into the Queen of the Nile.

In 1999, when Chilean actress Leonor Varela stepped into the role for a television miniseries, her casting marked a slight amount of progress, but Varela’s version of Cleopatra has largely been forgotten two decades later. Liz Taylor remains firmly ingrained in the public imagination as Cleopatra, but the long history of shutting out actresses of color from contention has proven offensive to people of color who believe the queen was not white.

Historians have long described Cleopatra as ethnically Greek, but during the past decade, that assumption has increasingly been called into question. In 2009, a team of archaeologists found the remains of a woman they believed to be Princess Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s sister. The researchers believe Arsinoe’s remains, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother (also likely Cleopatra’s) was African.

“That Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe,” Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who made the discovery, said at the time.

A year before the discovery of Arsinoe’s remains, Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton, then a senior assistant keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum, made headlines with her 3D computer animated image of Cleopatra. That’s because the image did not depict Cleopatra as a white woman but as a brown-skinned woman with cornrows. Ashton and her team used forensics to create the groundbreaking image of the ancient monarch.

A three-dimensional image of Cleopatra.
A three-dimensional image of Cleopatra released in 2008 portrays her as having brown skin and cornrows.
Foundry Studios

“She probably wasn’t just completely European,” Ashton remarked at the time. “You’ve got to remember that her family had actually lived in Egypt for 300 years by the time she came to power.”

The image led NPR to ask its readers: “If Hollywood were to remake Cleopatra with this mixed-race image in mind, who would you like to see play the title role?”

Today, people who consider Cleopatra to be a woman of color have suggested performers as diverse as Jennifer Lopez, Priyanka Chopra, and Rihanna play the Egyptian ruler. And all of these women have one thing in common: They’re beautiful. But the real-life Cleopatra likely was not.

A coin featuring Cleopatra’s portrait, dated 32 BC, was discovered in 2007. The queen did not look like the stunning goddess Hollywood has long depicted her as. Instead, she had “a large nose, narrow lips and a sharp chin,” according to Smithsonian. The website noted that this was not an oversight of ancient historians, who never made the queen out to be breathtaking. Plutarch, for example, said of Cleopatra:

“Her actual beauty ... was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence ... was irresistible. ... The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching.”

This finding reveals that the way we think of Cleopatra might need to be updated in more ways than one. So it’s disconcerting to see white women like Jolie and Gaga named as the sole contenders for the role, even if their participation in the project is just a rumor for now — especially given all of the discussions that have taken place about Hollywood’s whitewashing of history, be it in newer films like Gods of Egypt, Exodus, or The Prince of Persia, or in classics like Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra.

If Egyptologists doubt that the Queen of the Nile had solely white ancestry, then the idea that she was mixed-race and that an actress of color could realistically portray her shouldn’t be a controversial idea in the year 2019.

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