Hollywood’s historical casting of Cleopatra

Natasha Lynch


Black hair, brown eyes, blue eyeshadow, a gold headpiece and a white linen dress are but a few things that come to mind when we picture Cleopatra, but what of her ethnicity?

The role of Queen of the Nile has been played on screen a number of times since one of the earliest depictions in 1912 by Helen Gardner. The silent film titled ‘Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt’ was produced and edited by Gardner herself and was one of the first six-reel feature films produced in the US.

The actress was white and American and although this was not controversial then, the title card before the opening of the film states that the adaptation is loose and that “perfect freedom has been exercised”, so it certainly was a product of its time.

Vivien Leigh also took on the role in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ in 1945, the first colourised film of Cleopatra. A box office failure, the character was labelled bratty and not authentic to the true powerful leader she was.

Leigh’s beauty in the film was a more important topic of discussion than the issue of another white actress playing the Egyptian Queen.

Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Cleopatra in 1963 is a very highly regarded performance and was the most expensive film made at the time at $31 million, which would come close to $241 million today.

Taylor, a true film legend, was a British-American actress with blue eyes so the announcement of her casting was met with scepticism. Although her Cleopatra set the standard for subsequent portrayals, it was yet another depiction of the Egyptian queen by somebody not from that region.

The latest casting of Cleopatra was revealed to be Gal Gadot earlier this month, the Israeli native mostly known for playing the DC Comics character Wonder Woman. An influx of controversial opinions arose at the announcement with many saying it is an outrage for a nonperson of colour to be cast.

Social media erupted into a debate that Gadot did not deserve the role as she is neither African nor Arab. Amid the race controversy, historians have commented under posts saying Cleopatra was most likely half Greek.

According to an article on History.com the ruler was born in Egypt, but her origins were Macedonian Greek. Historyextra.com also claims Cleopatra’s family settled in Egypt 250 years before she was born so her Greek origins were mixed with other strains; hence it would be foolish of us to assume we know her actual race.

There is no set release date for the film yet, but it will continue regardless of the controversial casting, with Gadot also set to co-produce it. Although the reign of Cleopatra ended in 31 BC, her depiction in popular culture will always be a subject of importance and debate.

Natasha Lynch

Image Credit: Flickr