A Tempest In A Teapot

Israeli actress and former Miss Israel Gal Gadot recently announced that she will portray Cleopatra in a forthcoming Paramount Pictures movie. In a series of tweets, she wrote that she and director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis will “bring the story of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to the big screen … through women’s eyes.”

Instead of congratulating Gadot and welcoming her announcement as a step forward in the advancement of women’s rights, bigots rushed to judgment and blasted the star of the Wonder Woman film franchise.

Sameera Khan tweeted, “Which Hollywood dumbass thought it would be a good idea to cast an Israeli actress as Cleopatra (a very bland looking one) instead of a stunning Arab actress like Nadine Njeim? And shame one you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab lands & you’re stealing their movie roles.”

Tony Laface characterized the news as “another attempt to white wash a historical figure.” Abdul El Sayed asked why an Israeli woman will be playing an Egyptian queen.

These comments, smacking of provincialism, sour grapes and perhaps even racism, cannot be taken seriously.

As Kalogridis correctly noted, Cleopatra — the last ruler of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt and the daughter of a Macedonian general — is arguably the most famous Greek woman in history.

She was definitely not an Arab, though she ruled an Arab state. And even if she were an Arab, since when it is mandatory for an Arab actor to play an Arab character? In contemporary movies, ethnicity generally does not count when roles are assigned.

I don’t recall complaints when the American actor Tom Cruise was chosen to play Claus von Stauffenberg, the German army colonel/political dissident who was summarily executed in 1944 after planting a bomb in Adolf Hitler’s bunker.

Nor did I hear a whiff of criticism when British actor Daniel Day-Lewis played U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, when American actor Adrien Brody depicted the Mexican painter and muralist Salvador Dali, or when the Americans actress Meryl Streep portrayed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Much to her discredit, Khan politicized the issue by artificially inserting the Arab-Israeli conflict into her lame argument. This was base and shameless.

Since when is an actor’s nationality, religion or political beliefs a factor in whether he or she wins a role? And why do critics like Laface assume that Cleopatra was a black woman? Judging by the historical record, she was a Caucasian of partial Persian or Berber descent.

It also worth mentioning that Gadot will not be the first Jewish woman to play Cleopatra.

In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, the French and American actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Theda Bara played Cleopatra on the stage and screen.

And in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor, a Christian convert to Judaism, was cast as Cleopatra in a blockbuster film that won four Academy Awards.

Taylor’s pro-Israel views and fund-raising activities got her into trouble with the anti-Israel Egyptian government of the day. But to the best of my knowledge, no one ever objected to Taylor playing Cleopatra simply because she was a white Anglo-Saxon by birth.

So the fuss stirred up by the innocuous news that Gadot will play Cleopatra in a forthcoming Hollywood movie is really nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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