In June 2010 film producer Scott Rudin revealed that he is developing a film about Cleopatra and planning to cast Angelina Jolie as the captivating African queen. He’s basing the screenplay on Stacy Schiff’s book Cleopatra: A Life and Schiff told USA that she welcomed the choice of Jolie as Cleopatra. “Physically” Schiff said “she’s the perfect look.”
Rudin’s casting and Schiff’s comment sparked an instant, predictable row about Hollywood’s use of white actors and actresses. ‘Cleopatra was a beautiful African queen’, came the protest. ‘Jolie is wrong for the part. Cleopatra must be played by an African-American actress’.
Jolie faced the same attacks over her portrayal of Daniel Pearl’s widow, Mariane Pearl, in A Mighty Heart. The racial purists argued that Jolie should not be allowed to play Pearl since Pearl, of mixed Dutch and Afro-Cuban parentage, is mixed race and Jolie is white. Jolie may well have smiled wryly to herself as this debate continued. Of mixed heritage, she has Czech, French-Canadian, English and Iroquois blood.
Mariane Pearl herself objected to the argument, telling Time Magazine that she was happy with the casting. “It is not about the color of your skin” she said. “It is about who you are”.
In the case of Cleopatra, the insistence on racial matching between actors and characters is even more spurious. Casting a white actor to play Billie Holliday, say, or Nelson Mandela would be pretty illogical. Race is central to both individuals’ stories. Cleopatra, however, became the last Pharaoh of Egypt in 51 B.C. She’s passed into legend and her story centres on power, beauty, seduction and tragedy, not skin colour. Those who say that she was black don’t even have historical fact to support their argument. On her father’s side she was of Macedonian Greek descent. Her mother’s identity is unsure. Jonathan Grochowski of King’s College London comments that “Though most evidence points to [Cleopatra’s] ethnicity as being Greek, there are those who believe she was from black African descent even though there is little proof of that.”
But actually even that is not the point. Scott Rudin wants Angelina Jolie to play Cleopatra because he believes she’ll give a great performance that audiences will want to see. He has the artistic right to cast anyone he likes in the role regardless of race, height, eye colour, creed, political allegiance or any other consideration. Actors should be cast in films if they are good at their work and suitable for the role under consideration, as conceived by the director. Directors shouldn’t be pressured by race lobbyists to make politically correct casting decisions that go against their creative aims when making a film. The bureaucratic notion that producers or directors should racially match actors to roles is intrinsically undesirable and not viable artistically.
The arts, including film and theatre, shouldn’t be stifled by politically correct constraints any more than they should be stifled by censorship. Society should let creative professionals have their independence whether that means casting women to play men, blacks to play whites or any other permutation. The arts are not poorer for having had actress Linda Hunt play male character Billy Kwan in the excellent Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson himself portrayed Scottish nationalist hero William Wallace in Braveheart. What a great performance would have been missed had some lobbyist objected that he wasn’t a Scot. We’ve also seen Hamlet played by black British actor Adrian Lester although Hamlet, a fictional Danish prince, was certainly dreamt up as white. Henry VI of England has also been portrayed by black actor David Oyelowo, of Nigerian origin, in a Royal Shakespeare Company’s production. Directing Oyelowo, Michael Boyd said at the time: “It’s colour-blind casting. David’s son will be white and there’s no hint of illegitimacy.” Since acting is largely about suspension of disbelief, why not?
We should keep the bureacratic idea of race matching out of the arts. Let creative professionals make their choices whether it means casting black David Oyelowo as white English King Henry or Angelina Jolie as Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Where does the road of constraint lead after all? To racial purists aguing that Cleopatra can’t be played by Jolie or by an African-American actress? That she must be played by an Egyptian actress?
I bet Jolie will give a terrific performance – not because she’s white but because she’s a terrific actor and a very beautiful woman able to nail Cleopatra’s legendary beauty, grace and allure.
Last word goes to a website called greekreporter.com who have their own funny take on the Jolie-Cleopatra racial casting row.
“As a result of historical facts” they say, “somebody could argue that the role of Cleopatra should not go to a woman of color or Angelina Jolie but to an actress of Greek origin. A great candidate could be Greek-American Jennifer Aniston.”