News of the show was met with uproar in Egypt due to the fact that a Black actor (James) was portraying the ancient ruler. Prominent figures in the country such as the antiquities ministry have argued that Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics”.
James addressed the show’s reception for the first time in an appearance on the popular podcast Steph’s Packed Lunch on Thursday (11 May).
“It would be naive of me to say that I didn’t expect anything at all, but I didn’t expect the scale of it,” she told host Steph McGovern.
“And I think it’s distressing for anybody to receive any level of abuse, let alone the scale and the nature of what I’ve received, which is fundamentally racist, all of it.
“People are talking about the wrong things,” she continued. “Yes, we don’t know where her mother was from or her paternal grandmother, but also the show is about so much more than the question mark over her race.
“If you watch it is a very small part of the conversation really, this is about the fullness of who this woman was and she was a human being and she shouldn’t be reduced to her race any more than I should or anybody should.”
Cleopatra was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC, succeeding her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC and ruled until her death in 30 BC.
Much of her lineage, including her mother’s race, is unknown, and therefore her precise skin and hair texture are up for debate.
James appeared on the podcast with her co-star John Partridge, best known for playing Christian Clarke on EastEnders, who added: “The controversy is about Cleopatra being black, I don’t hear anybody saying that Julius Caesar is a homosexual from Manchester. We’re just actors at the end of the day, and sometimes our morality gets called into play, we’re jobbing actors.”
James also spoke about the support of the docudrama’s narrator and executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith: “She was so involved in the casting process, she watched all of our audition tapes, she was giving feedback on the rushes when we were out in Morocco shooting. And she's just been such a champion of the project from the very beginning. I mean, it's her baby.
“She is an African Queen and I feel like it just couldn't be more pertinent and important that she's the figurehead of this. She’s an icon.”
James’s response comes after one furious Egyptian broadcaster vowed to create its own, big-budget documentary about Cleopatra using a light-skinned actor.
Netflix did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment.
Queen Cleopatra is out now on Netflix.