Casting Cleopatra: Continuing the Question of Hollywood’s Diversity Dilemma

Once again, Cleopatra is set to return to the silver screen via the newest film adaptation from Sony, though this time, casting controversy has surrounded the project. According to rumours, both Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga are being considered for the lead role. News of a white actress playing the Egyptian queen has sparked outrage and heated discussions across social media, particularly regarding diversity in film and the exact ethnic origins of the ethnically diverse figure.

Despite the recent efforts to increase representation in film, and the subsequent awards nods and social acclaim, it appears Sony is at a crossroads. Do they continue the Hollywood tradition of hiring big-name, talented actresses who are guaranteed to draw in crowds, or do they hire ethnically accurate but lesser known actors to appease audiences’ need for diversity?

Arguably, Hollywood's traditional formula of an A-list white actor playing an ethnic role no longer holds credence. Unlike before, when actresses like Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh were cast as Cleopatra, there are hundreds of thousands of talented ethnic actors who could play the part. In a way, it would be unethical not to hire ethnic filmmakers and actors when there are so many starving for the opportunity.

Ethics aside, it's a difficult question for filmmakers as well. Big name actors draw bigger crowds and bigger profits. How much revenue a film makes is the single most important factor to determine the success of a film. While perhaps more historically accurate, hiring ethnic but unknown actors have less star-power and are less likely to draw in hordes ticket-buying fans.

However, casting people who better represent the plot and characters makes the cinematic experience indubitably better. Crazy Rich Asians could not have done nearly as well if it wasn’t for the all-Asian lead cast. Arguably, Black Panther wouldn't have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture had there been less black star-power in the film.

More intimate and humorous films like Bend It Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding wouldn’t have had nearly the same warmth, character, and familiarity had the casts been any ethnicity other than the ones they were representing.

Christine Kamel, an Egyptian student at the University of Kent, when films hire actors of the same heritage as the role they're playing, "the role will be more authentic and the quality of the film will be much better than a person of a different heritage trying to play someone of which they don't know about." In that respect, the ethnicity of the actors becomes as much a part of the film as the plot or characterization.

Alternatively, films that cast actors who are clearly not ethnically suited have become the butt of one large internet joke. Fans of the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender series are loathing to discuss The Last Airbender film, renowned on the internet for its extreme lack of diversity.

Scarlett Johansson is notorious for being cast for roles that she's not ethnically suited for. This primarily occurred for her role as Major in Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese manga of the same name. The film, and Johansson, has almost become synonymous with Hollywood whitewashing. Twitter user @ThisIsntIman even responded to the prospective casting of Cleopatra stating that the role should go to neither Gaga nor Jolie as “Cleopatra wasn't white. Do the right thing and give the role to Scarlett Johansson.”

Backlash, such as Ghost in the Shell filmmakers faced, can make or break a film’s box office revenue. According to Paramount domestic distribution chief, Kyle Davies, in an interview with CBC News, the film’s profits were so poor due to the casting controversy. “We had hopes for better results domestically,” he said, “I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews.” According to Kamel, filmmakers are starting to realize that "people actually want to see a film that represents everyone, not just one race," she says. "Especially in today's climate, if a film's cast does not have full representation, then that film may not be as successful, leading them to really think about the casting and if this is true representation and is diverse."

For Disney’s live-action adaptation of Aladin, filmmakers decided to cast Mena Massoud, a relatively unknown Coptic-Egyptian actor. While it was indeed a risk to cast the lesser known actor, fans were fully prepared to boycott the film had they cast someone who was not Middle Eastern.

They’ve already been accused of trying to whitewash Princess Jasmine by hiring Naomi Scott, who is lighter skinned than her animated counterpart. Fans defended the casting, stating that her mother is of Gujarati Indian descent, making her ethnically suited for the role regardless of her skin tone. Rejecting a minority someone based on their skin colour is foolishness at its finest. Casting is a holistic view of an actor's appearance and abilities. In that respect, mild concessions can and should be made for the sake of a quality film.

Middle Eastern women, as well as African and South Asian women, come in a variety of shades, tones, and depths, and a large majority of them are underrepresented in the media and constantly contrasted with North American and European standards of beauty. Amidst the quest for diversity in film, conscious casting decisions are important, but not at the cost of further divisiveness in ethnic casting.

The same applies to the casting of Cleopatra. Focusing on the exact genetic makeup of the Egyptian royal, as many sought to do on social media, or the exact shade of her skin is irrelevant and perhaps a step too far in the quest for diversity; Whether or not she was ethnically more Greek or African or Egyptian is not as relevant as her political contributions to the development of Egypt. Likewise in the film, the focus should be on appropriately ethnic casting, rather than solely an appearance-based racial one.

Besides the casting, the Egyptian setting of the film is another point of contention in the quest for diverse representation in cinema. Egypt has time and time again been used as a device for an exotic and intriguing film background, with societal relevance only in relation to the ancient gods and goddesses we continue to find intriguing; Hollywood consistently whitewashes and exoticises Egypt.

A country of complex political and social cultures with an undermining ancient history has criminally been reduced to golden sand, ancient curses, and vengeful mummies. The one-dimensional way Egypt is portrayed has robbed viewers of rich culture and opportunity to learn more about the modern people living there.

Particularly, the laughable diversity of movies set in the Middle East is a hallmark of the genre. Besides the previous adaptations of Cleopatra, films like Gods of Egypt, The Mummy and Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark present Egypt as a culturally primitive place stuck in its polytheistic past. Whether it’s the blatant whitewashing, such as in Gods of Egypt, or the orientalist and western lens in which the Egyptian people and landscape are viewed. Movie audiences are trained to expect nothing more from Egypt than a curse or a quest, and at present, are satisfied with keeping it that way.

The desire for increased representation in cinema should, therefore, extend further than just casting, but to the plotlines as well. Stereotypes should be challenged and cinematic settings should be done intentionally; Despite the diversity and complexity of the Egyptian landscape, it's clear that the setting is merely that: a setting.

From her on-stage tenure in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, to the 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, it was never a question whether a white actress would play Cleopatra, but rather which one. Diversity in a film is a contemporary development, one that challenged the existing status quo of the old Hollywood era. As consumers and filmmakers become more thoughtful in their representation in films, both casting and the cultural heritage of places should be considered.