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Jeff Jacoby / Oct. 19, 2020

The Israeli Actress and the Egyptian Queen

Gal Gadot tweeted the news that she is to play Cleopatra in a new movie directed by Patty Jenkins from a script by Laeta Kalogridis.

First came the furor when the Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast by Marvel to play the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” — a character who was Asian in the original graphic novels. Then came an uproar over the choice of Scarlett Johansson to star in a movie about the life of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender gangster. Still another controversy erupted when the able-bodied Bryan Cranston won the role of Phillip Lacasse, a quadriplegic billionaire, in the movie “The Upside.”

In all three cases, critics blasted the actors for the supposed sins of cultural appropriation and noninclusiveness — for taking parts that ought to have gone to actors whose racial, gender, or bodily identity matched that of the character being portrayed.

Now the woke posse has a new target.

Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who vaulted to international fame in “Wonder Woman,” last Sunday tweeted the news that she is to play Cleopatra in a new movie directed by Patty Jenkins from a script by Laeta Kalogridis. There is no shortage of movies about Cleopatra, but this will be the first in which the director, screenwriter, and star are all women. Gadot purposely made the announcement on International Day of the Girl, and said the new movie about the renowned Egyptian queen would “tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera.”

As Deadline Hollywood reported, “the Egyptian queen’s tale has all the makings of a big female empowerment story, told by women.” Yet far from celebrating this milestone, critics blasted it as an instance of Hollywood “whitewashing” history, and expressed outrage at the prospect of Cleopatra being played by an Israeli actress.

The casting of Gadot, lamented Hanna Flint in The Guardian, is “a backward step for Hollywood representation,” one that “perpetuates a white standard of foreignness.” Abdul El-Sayed, a doctor and CNN political commentator, tweeted: “So … there were no Egyptian women to play, um, an Egyptian queen?” Steven Salaita, a scholar of Native American studies who has taught at several universities, struck an uglier note: “Whatever you think of her being cast as Cleopatra, never forget that Gal Gadot proudly served (and continues to support) a colonial army notorious for maiming and murdering civilians.”

For several reasons, the denunciation of Gadot and “Cleopatra” don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim that the proposed movie is just another case of “whitewashing” history fails on historical grounds. Cleopatra VII, the Queen of the Nile, may have been the foremost Egyptian of her day, but she was neither a Black African nor an Arab. She was the last of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs, a descendant of Ptolemy I, the Macedonian Greek military officer and companion of Alexander the Great who became the ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death. Though the identity of Cleopatra’s mother has never been definitively established, there is no doubt that Cleopatra was regarded as Greek. Egypt today is the most populous Arab country, but there was nothing Arab about it in Cleopatra’s day: The Arab conquest of North Africa occurred six centuries after her death.

The indigenous people of Egypt are the Copts, who still exist as a persecuted minority in their homeland; to the extent that any of Cleopatra’s lineage was native, it was probably Coptic. Her image on contemporaneous coins shows a woman of Mediterranean appearance. “The best evidence is that she was three-quarters Macedonian Greek and one-quarter Egyptian,” writes historian and archaeologist Duane Roller of Ohio State University. Applying today’s labels, Cleopatra would be considered Middle Eastern. Just like Gadot, whose father is a sixth-generation Israeli.

But leave all that aside. Assume for the sake of argument that Cleopatra and Gadot are from two wholly different racial/ethnic categories. Why should that matter?

The notion that dramatic roles must go only to actors who check the same demographic box as the people they portray may line up with progressive identity politics, but it flies in the face of what acting is. Actors pretend. They embody characters and bring them to life. Great acting doesn’t depend on whether the race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, color, or physical condition of actors matches that of the character they are depicting. It depends on whether the actors can surmount such considerations — whether they can make their portrayals so believable, so compelling, that audiences see not the actor, but the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” cast non-white actors and actresses to portray America’s founders in what became a mesmerizing theatrical experience. Liam Neeson, an Irishman, played the German Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler with riveting humanity and moral insight. Eddie Redmayne, who appears healthy in every way, carried off the role of a severely paralyzed Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” so brilliantly that Hawking himself said: “At times, I thought he was me.” Dev Patel, whose parents are Gujarati Indians, looks nothing like David Copperfield as Charles Dickens imagined him — but in a new movie, he brings the character to life more exuberantly and convincingly than many white actors have.

No one knows yet whether Gal Gadot will make a good Cleopatra. But this much is clear: It is madness to insist that actors must never play characters unlike themselves. In real life, Gadot doesn’t have superpowers and isn’t the daughter of an Amazon queen, but that didn’t keep her from depicting Wonder Woman with extraordinary charisma. Can she do the same for Cleopatra? Whatever the answer to that question, it won’t turn on race or nationality.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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