Recently it was announced that Angelina Jolie will likely play Cleopatra in an upcoming film about the Queen of the Nile’s life. After the announcement, soon controversy spread about Jolie being inadequate to portray the Egyptian icon. Many online argued that as a Caucasian woman Jolie was unfit to play a woman who is often mistakenly thought of as ethnically 100% Egyptian or even Black. To clarify, Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greek royal family.
Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s seven bodyguards who in 305 BC took over Egypt as pharaoh. So though there was likely some breeding with some of the local Egyptians between the time Ptolemy took rule and Cleopatra did, Cleopatra was mostly ethnically Greek. In other words she probably had fair skin, perhaps not that much unlike Angelina Jolie’s. Nevertheless I understand the frustration that people have when Caucasian actors take roles that should go to other ethnic groups.
There has also been some controversy lately over Jake Gyllenhaal’s recent turn as the Iranian hero of Prince of Persia, mostly because people said he was too White to play the part. To be fair, Persians (also known as Iranians) are White people. Not convinced? Take a look at this picture of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and director of the fantastic 2007 film Persepolis.
And here’s a picture of half Iranian Heroes actor Adrian Pasdar.
Some of the uproar over casting decisions such as the last two mentioned seem to simply come from misunderstanding who around the world belong to different ethnic groups. However, there have been many instances of justifiable anger over casting decisions. I was taken aback when I first heard of the decision to have Angelina Jolie play widow Mariane Pearl in the film A Mighty Heart. I suppose I just thought that Pearl was African American but now I know that she is half Dutch and half African, Chinese and Cuban! Jolie did a superb job in the film, so much so that I don’t have a problem with her having taken the role over someone who looked more “ethnic.” Consider this: Would so many people have gotten upset if an entirely Black woman played the part of Pearl? I think not. Pearl is half White but it is so funny how in our culture if someone is part African, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern or other we immediately see them as entirely that and do not look closer to appreciate the complexity of their ethnic background.
I sometimes hear people wishing for a day when Hollywood is color blind. A few years ago I think I would have wanted that too but now I hope Hollywood never becomes completely colorblind. I would hate to see the day when Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun is played by a White man in any venue besides a high school gymnasium. I also wouldn’t ever want to see Queen Elizabeth ever played by say Zhang Ziyi or Queen Latifah. However, I do think some roles can be played by anyone regardless of race and that some roles will evolve with the times. If we can have a Black (well, half White, half Black) president, why can’t we have a Latino James Bond or an African American Wonder Woman? I for one look forward to the day when a half Japanese, half Swiss,Norwegian, Swedish and German man like myself can fulfill his lifelong dream of playing Batman.