Navigating Controversy: Zendaya and the ‘Cleopatra’ Casting Debate


Nov. 20 2023, Published 6:14 p.m. ET

One of the most common controversies that comes out of Hollywood nowadays is “blackwashing.” The term is a play on “whitewashing,” and some people are complaining that Hollywood is intentionally casting Black actors and actresses for roles typically reserved for white people.

While it’s tempting to roll your eyes and say “What goes around comes around,” the latest controversy surrounding Zendaya as Cleopatra is worth looking into. There haven’t been any official announcements yet, but the internet is already in a storm saying that the casting is all wrong.

What We Know About the ‘Cleopatra’ Movie

So if there haven’t been any announcements, how do people know Zendaya is going to play Cleopatra? The answer comes from multiple sources saying Dennis Villeneuve’s production sheet was found, and it detailed plans for a Cleopatra movie starring Zendaya.

This news isn’t too surprising, since Dennis Villeneuve is the producer of both Dune movies, where Zendaya also stars. Villeneuve has also made remarks about working on a Cleopatra project in the past, which he said he hopes to release either while or after working on the second Dune movie.

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The production sheet that’s rumored to have been found also lists Daniel Craig as Julius Caesar, and Timothee Chalamet as Octavius.

Cleopatra Was Greek

Zendaya has a mixed ethnicity. Her father is an African-American with roots in Nigeria, while her mother is white with German and Scottish ancestry. Meanwhile, many mistake Cleopatra as Egyptian, when in reality, she was Macedonian Greek, with some Persian descent.

That’s why the moment the rumors spread, people took to X, formerly Twitter, to express their unhappiness with the casting choice.

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“Cleopatra was Greek,” tweeted one. Another complained about Hollywood refusing to cast a Greek person as Cleopatra, writing, “What's Hollywood's obsession with casting anyone but Greek people for Cleopatra movies?”

It wasn’t all negativity, of course. Many people are excited to see Zendaya’s performance as the Pharaoh of Egypt. And if her previous performances are anything to go by, she’s going to kill that role.

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But as usual, the negative voices have been extremely vocal. “Cleopatra was GREEK. Not African, GREEK. How about we make a Shaka Zulu movie and have some blonde-haired White guy play him? Stop black-washing real historical figures.” One user on X wrote.

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Was Cleopatra White?

But here’s something that many of the complainers aren’t aware of: nobody knows if Cleopatra was white. Yes, she was a Macedonian Greek, people who typically had lighter skin at that time. However, she also had some Persian and Sogdian Iranian descent, which may have given her darker skin tones.

This is something that has been debated for many years, but there still isn’t any conclusive answer. Kathryn Bard, an archeology professor said, "We don't know what color Cleopatra's skin was and unless her mummy is found (unlikely) and DNA can be analyzed from it, we will never know."

So while we may never know the true color of Cleopatra’s skin, one thing is for certain: there’s always going to be controversy every time a new film about this ancient Pharaoh is released, regardless of who gets the role.

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