Before you groan at the prospect of yet another Hollywood remake, let it be known that the forthcoming Cleopatra project is going to be directed by Dennis Villeneuve. You might remember him as the man behind Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and Sicario – a recent lineup that’s proof positive of Villeneuve’s ability to tell intelligent, visceral, and compelling stories. Beyond Villeneuve, one of the screenwriters for the new Cleopatra will be David Scarpa, who wrote the award-winning All The Money In the World for director Ridley Scott.
With figures like these in charge of the project, we should respect its very legitimate potential. However, by the sound of things, we should also probably be expecting something somewhat unorthodox. Speaking of his intentions for the film, Scarpa has said, “My attitude was well let’s take that prestige picture and just blow it up. Let’s do it as a political thriller.” In short, we can likely look forward to something closer to Game of Thrones than the 1963 Hollywood classic on which the new project will be (apparently loosely) based.
Following the emergence of these details, two of the biggest names in Hollywood are reportedly vying for the chance to play the title role: Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie. Both actresses have proven their on-screen mettle enough to warrant consideration. However, the fact that both are white is sparking yet another debate about racial representation in Hollywood. As one writer explained the issue at The Independent, “The casting should be informed by the racial and social dynamics of today.” This is actually not the typical take for this kind of issue. For this particular writer at least, the issue of whether Cleopatra was Caucasian, African, or Greek/Macedonian is certainly important for historical purposes. However, what’s even more important is considering how casting yet another white woman in the iconic role would contribute to the perpetual cultural whitewashing of history and entertainment.
It’s no secret that mainstream cinema has largely favoured white actors. This problematic trend has been present in entertainment for years and has directly disadvantaged minorities in the business. The history of the Cleopatra role itself actually exemplifies the point. The latest archaeological findings on the reputed remains of Princess Arsinoe – Cleopatra’s sister – indicate that their mother was in fact of African descent. Yet many of us imagine Cleopatra and think of Elizabeth Taylor, arguably the pinnacle of white, European beauty.
The myth of a white Cleopatra is so deeply ingrained in our culture that you can find it on nearly every corner of the web. On Amazon, white models pose to sell costumes based on the 1963 film. Among numerous history- and mythology-inspired games by the Irish gaming platform SlotSource, the title Leprechaun Goes Egypt depicts Cleopatra as light-skinned as well. Even online makeup tutorials about Taylor’s 1963 “cat eye” look are largely designed for light-skinned women.
Given all of this, it’s clear why some see the potential casting of Lady Gaga or Angelina Jolie as a problem, despite what are likely perfectly good intentions (Jolie, for her part, has been dying to play the part for years). The good news is that following these debates, and with the film still in production, Villeneuve and the rest of the crew behind Cleopatra are likely to take all of this into consideration during final casting. Then all we’ll have to wonder about is just how violent, intriguing, and genre-bending this new interpretation might be. We wouldn’t put anything past the Villeneuve-Scarpa duo!