Monday, 21 June 2010

OK, this nonsense is getting out of hand.

First, we had the idiocy of complaining about a Jake Gyllenhaal, a white man, playing a Persian, when the Persian ethnos are considered white by any racial delineation which includes the term "white." 
Now we have idiots throwing a hissy fit because Angelina Jolie is playing Cleopatra.  Because, apparently, Cleopatra was black.

This is stunning.  I can't even see how such a silly idea comes about: is it because Egypt is technically in the continent of Africa, ergo anyone from Africa is a black person - despite that being far from the case in history, and especially the classical era?  Cleopatra VII - the most famous of the Cleos, and undoubtedly the one Jolie is cast as - was Greek.  She was a member of the Ptolomaic Dynasty, and had been for 300 years.  Like the earlier Egyptians, the Ptolomys married closely, sometimes to the extent of cousins and siblings.  The only way she could be black is if the Ptolemies had been marrying Nubians in the 300 years since - something absent from the historical record, and which surely goes against their history of keeping as close to the family as possible.

Then there's the contemporary evidence: coins, statues, chronicles from contemporaries like Plutarch and Cato - none give even the slightest hint that Cleo was anything other than the Ptolemaic Greek that she was.

See, I can understand frustration regarding casting.  It really bugs me, for example, in the case of The Last Airbender.  The show upon which it's based is something I generally call Fauxnime - western-based animation which takes visual elements from anime, giving the impression that it was created in an Asian environment.  As such, it's natural that most of the main characters are Asian - indeed, a lot of the antagonists are drawn in the style that anime renders Europeans in.  Whether it's racist or not is beyond the point, since this is a pre-industrial (well, mostly pre-industrial) fantasy universe, and the bad guys are generally anyone who isn't of the good guy's side.

So naturally, there was a furore when the four main characters are cast with Caucasian actors, while the antagonists are filled by darker-skinned folk.

Outcry over this is justifiable: not only are they casting people in a fantasy setting without any care for ethnic appropriateness (imaging them casting Michael Copon as a teenage Conan, or Sean Ashmore as Earthsea's Ged... waitaminute...), but the changes intensify bad feeling over Hollywood prioritising Caucasians over other ethnicities, especially when they consciously cast Caucasians in parts that should go to minorities.

However, as we've seen, sometimes this can go to silly extremes that undermine the entire argument.  The outcry over Jolie as Cleopatra is one of these, and symptomatic of one of those most odious of pseudo-sciences: Afrocentrism.  Afrocentrism irritates me because it's exactly the sort of racist nonsense that we should've grown out of by now.  Everything from the Egyptians to the Mesopotamians and even Greeks has been hijacked by a minority of maniacs who, instead of lionizing the legimitimate glories of Sub-Saharan Africans, choose to simply appropriate the work of other ethnicities as their own.  Instead of looking into their real past, rich and fascinating, they'd rather say the Ancient Egyptians were black, or that the Greeks stole from the Nubians.

It's disgusting, and an affront to the memories of Kush, Nubia, Aksum, Makuria, Songhai, Mali, Great Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Bantu, the Zulu, Dahomey, and the countless other great peoples and kingdoms of Africa. Are they not "glorious" enough as it is, that the only way for people to respect black history is to say that other civilizations were really black? Why say the likes of Cleopatra, Hannibal, and Imhotep were black when we already have Shaka, Shabaka, Sunni Ali, Askia the Great, Kandake, Amanirenas, and many more?

This is why it bothers me when people talk of a black Bond, or even a black Conan: why should we have to hijack an existing black character, when it would be better creating a new icon?  The implication of a black Bond is that the world wouldn't accept or be interested in a black secret agent unless he was riding the coattails of an established white character.  Same with Conan: why bother with a black Conan when we have Imaro?  Therefore, instead of getting up in arms about Jolie being a "black Cleopatra", why don't we get people asking for a film about a real African Queen - Amanirenas who defied the Romans, Nzingha who warred against the technologically superior Portuguese empire, Nandi the tough-as-nails mother of Shaka?  Hell, why not an Egyptian Queen who was actually black - Tiye, the Nubian consort of Amenhotep III?

Better yet, the Dahomey Amazons.  Where's their big movie?

I say this because I have a great love of African culture, mythology & history.  My Kenyan aunt told me many stories of her homeland, and the stories of the tribal nations fascinated me as much as those of Mongolia, Mesopotamia, or Europe.  So instead of distorting history in a backlash against scientific racism, we should rise above such infantile methods.  Bring African history - real African history - to the fore, and show the world how wonderful it is.


  1. what's that film with Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra? you would like a Spanish historical fantasy or alternative history novel called Bula Matari, itr tells about a Carthaginian empire who defaet romans and must fight against the zulus of Shaka...

  2. Yeah, I remember one of my high school teachers (who was black) going on with the "Cleopatra was black" argument and even then I knew it was wrong for all the reasons you stated. Even more embarrassing, his main "evidence" was an image of Nefertiti (???).

  3. whats odd is, we used to have in my neck of the woods.. a group I can only describe as Black Sceintologists.. they were the " Nuwabian Nation of Moors " or something to that effect.. they had a kitchy compound in south Georgia.. with stucco pyramids and faux egyptian stuff everywhere..

    It was all so popular that there are still stores that sell " history " books which seem to back those facts up.. never mind that the guy who started it.. dwight york.. only used the group as an excuse to molest children and collect vast sums of money.. maybe even out of celebrities such as Wesley Snipes.. though snipes denies having anything to do with it..

  4. Francisco, the Cleopatra biopic is called Cleopatra: A Life. It's only just been announced. I'll have a look for Bula Matari: gotta love alternate history.

    Andy, I was lucky enough to not get this at school (though during US history our teacher was a bit of a conspiracy nut, and did a whole lesson on why the JFK assassination was "a bit iffy.") The argument that Cleopatra was black only really started in the 20th century, exasperated by backlash against the scientific community: it doesn't help anyone, and just makes this problematic.

    Lagomorph, I've seen a couple of these crazy books, and I heard of York. Isn't it depressing sometimes?

  5. Highly depressing.. Though I miss all their kooky buildings.. it was almost as if a miniature golf course had exploded all over Georgia...

    I understand Vin Diesel is supposed to be connected to the Hannibal the Conqueror movie..

  6. Vin Diesel's a rather comical case, since he's of mixed Afrian/Italian descent. So in addition to being black when the Carthaginians are closer to Semitic than anything else (a lot of people ascribe North Africans to being black), he's also closer to Carthage's nemesis Rome. Alexander Siddig was Hannibal in a docu-drama I saw: he was pretty solid, and appropriate for the role.

  7. Well Vin is at least closer than Denzel Washington who was the first name I read of as being attached to it.. But I see that Vin's only listed as a producer on the film.. not as the star...

    Basically the problem is we got lazy and used the word " Africa " which historically only described the area north of the Sahara mountains.. to describe the whole Continent..

  8. That's exactly the problem. Not everyone in or from Africa is black, any more than everyone in or from America is Native American. It's ludicrous to apply nationality to ethnicity in this day and age. Hence why the mere term "African-American" infuriates me.

  9. I have to say - My problem with Angelina Jolie playing Cleopatra is that she is BEAUTIFUL.

    I'm sorry - but ugly ducking got to represent here;
    I grew up hearing that Cleopatra was NOT good looking, but smart, and skilled, a politician, and an orator, and loved for who she was. Not some hotty totty with bee stung lips.
    That shit is important when you are a kid.
    Even if reality can often be such a brutal wake up call to the contrary.
    It is IMPORTANT to let young girls know that there is some chance in hell they can be loved for more than their looks.
    It doesn't matter what race she is - as long as she is NOT a hotty.
    If you cast Jolie you might as just as well cast Megan Fox - or any other body with out a brain - because THAT becomes the story.
    The character has more UMPH and legitimacy if she is a wee bit of a grenade.

  10. You're absolutely right, Erin: I completely forgot to address that out of all the possible problems one could have with Jolie as Cleo, the only one with a historically sound basis is simply that Cleo didn't look like her.

    Even looking at the busts and coins, one can see that Cleo looked a far cry from the popular conception. This isn't helped by the fact that the Greek ideal of beauty is not necessarily the same as in modern times. I was raised with the story of Cleo being attractive, but I was also raised with the story that the Romans built the first roads in Britain: not everything stands up to modern scrutiny.

    Still, the myth of Cleopatra's beauty is pervasive. There's even a ludicrous Daily Mail article that "recreates" Cleo based on the "latest scientific techniques." Guess what? It depicts her not only as very dark-skinned (almost Moroccan, giving fuel to the "Cleo was black" fire), but she looks pretty damn attractive. Quite like Lyndsey Marshal's Cleopatra, as it happened.

    I think a depiction of Cleo from that point of view - a woman without particularly stunning looks who was nonetheless incredibly attractive for her intelligence, insight, wit and oratory skill - would be preferable to another Jolie vehicle. Sadly, this is Hollywood we're talking about, where Amanda Seyfried is cast as the "plain" one in a Megan Fox movie.

  11. Turdnisch
    I don't know what's more laughable, your arrogant denials of history and common sense or your colossal patronizing tone. Allow me to acquaint you with the facts.

    FACT: Egypt is not "technically" in Africa anymore than Scotland is "technically" in Britain. Egypt is there and has never been anywhere else. If you believe it's in another continent, PLEASE tell us what map you're looking at!

    FACT: Cleoatra had a black mother
    Now in your dream-o-rama having a black mother makes someone "white" but since we're talking about phenotypical traits here in the real world a black parent on either side of the family means the child will look like the BLACK parent, since black genes are DOMINANT genes and white genes are recessive.
    That's science and common sense. So again, you are wrong.

    FACT: Amanerinas never "defied" Alexander. That's another of the Kandake's you're NOT thinking about.
    So your pathetic attempt to essentially say "why don't you people claim your own history," is a lie. You are the one re-writing history. I've NEVER heard anyone dumb enough to say Egypt isn't in Africa until this blog, PLEASE lay off the sci-fi movies, it's ruining the two braincells you HAD!!!!

    FACT: Nubia is not sub-saharan, nor is half of Mali, so the only place where black and sub-saharan is synonymous is in your imagination.
    Egypt was a black civilization, get over it. Greece was populated by large numbers of blacks. I know you get your information about Greece from 300 and Troy and Alexander but I get my information from my numerous trips to the Greeks isles where you see dozens of Greek statues and vases and wine jars and libation bowls (to say nothing of the literature such as Herodotus' and Homer's works) displaying black residents of Greece.

    Again, the only place where a pure-white Greece independent of black influence exists is in your empty head.

    Finally, until 2500 years ago there were no non-blacks in Africa. And only 12,000 years ago ALL of humanity was black, because the caucasoidal mutation hadn't occurred.
    Now I know these facts hurt but facts don't care what you think or if it shatters the lies you used to uphold you fragile ego.

    And given your arrogant and ignorant post I think it's safe to say that the term African American "infuriates" you because you resent blackness. That's your problem, not anyone else's.

    Now I'm sure these facts are predictably lost on you, but I offer these facts nonetheless so that you can no longer deny having been acquainted with the facts. Enjoy your ignorance.

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