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Why Is Angelina Jolie Playing Cleopatra?

Submitted by on June 21, 2010 – 10:11 am12 Comments

One of my Twitter buddies Combat Jack (entertainment lawyer Reggie Osse) was recently getting heated over the announcement Angelina Jolie is set to play Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra in an upcoming film (following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Taylor):

I joined the conversation, highlighting the fact this particular Queen of Egypt was actually not of African descent at all:

Earlier this month, producer Scott Rudin announced the film project, based on Stacy Schiff‘s book Cleopatra: A Life, was “being developed for and with Jolie.” Schiff immediately gave her approval, saying “I think [Jolie] would be perfect for it and I can see a possible Oscar in her future.”

But just as Elizabeth Taylor (Jolie’s predecessor in so many ways) came under fire for her portrayal of Cleopatra back in 1963, Jolie’s racial background is also being questioned. This isn’t the first time she’s taken on a racially controversial role, either; her performance as Afro-Chinese-Cuban-Dutch journalist Marianne Pearl in 2007′s A Mighty Heart was also debated.

Essence‘s Shirea Carroll writes the following:

“Honestly, I don’t care how full Angelina Jolie’s lips are, how many African children she adopts, or how bronzed her skin will become for the film, I firmly believe this role should have gone to a black woman. Were Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry and Thandie Newton unavailable for auditions that day? Why does Hollywood think it’s even slightly plausible to cast white women in roles that would be more sensible to cast a black actress for? Especially when that role is an African queen.”

There are countless examples of people of color not being played by actors who share the same ethnicity in Hollywood over the years, from Laurence Olivier as Othello in 1965 to Jake Gyllenhaal as this year’s Prince of Persia. But is the argument a solid one in this case, when historians have confirmed throughout the years Cleopatra’s family were a Hellenic dynasty, with Greek roots? Angelina’s heritage isn’t Greek either though—so where do we draw the line?

Main image: NY Daily News

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