I watched Netflix’s race-baiting Cleopatra schlockumentary so you won’t have to

Adele James as Queen Cleopatra. Photo: screen capture from the “Queen Cleopatra” trailer, Netflix YouTube channel

With all the fallout it generated, Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” is a massive letdown for anyone that hoped the show could in any respect match the controversy. This should be of little surprise, come to think of it. There are better things to watch if you want to learn about African history. And you might be surprised that not only are these options available on Netflix, but it is the same people who are responsible for their production.

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I should start by taking back what I wrote earlier about the expectations we could have still entertained before “Queen Cleopatra” dropped on Netflix on Wednesday.

“In all likelihood, the ideas put forward in the show itself will likely be less controversial, and the show itself will turn out to be just a well-executed production, minus the obvious lack of historical accuracy,” I wrote the day before the show’s premiere.

I stick by what I wrote about it being less controversial and lacking historical accuracy.

I overestimated the production value of the show.

Because all that this miniseries has to show for itself is its controversy. In any other respect, it is a mediocre docudrama with low production value.

The show is bookended by Professor Shelley Haley telling the viewers about how her grandmother told her not to believe what she is told in school right at the very start, and her saying that she was compelled to eventually tell Cleopatra’s “true” story after a recurring dream.

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There is no way this can be treated seriously. The show does not do itself much service when it spends a couple of minutes trying to talk about the population of Ancient Egypt and basically admits that it can only speculate, while also trying to apply the modern ethnic make-up of the region to the way the land was more than two millennia ago.

It would not be the first time the best, juiciest parts of the film or series are selected for the trailer. It’s just a damn shame that Netflix admits that what is best about what their show has to offer is plain old race-baiting.

Because in terms of production value, the show has not much to show for itself. Tight shots with a focus on characters’ faces to show their emotions make up the bulk of the dramatization part of the show. For dramatic purposes, this would be alright if it had been used sparingly.

But eventually, you come to realize that, plus the out-of-focus backgrounds only serve to masquerade the fact there were very few backgrounds to film against.

The CGI budget must have been spent on the one piece of CGI that we get, which is an Egyptian temple/palace. Forget about seeing the Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the city of Rome, in which Cleopatra spent a considerable amount of time trying to secure her position by Caesar’s side. Forget about seeing the naval battle of Actium, where Cleopatra ditched Mark Anthony. And any land battle shown is filmed with some two dozen extras max.

When you come to think of it, this is not out of line with what most docudramas can reasonably offer on the budget they are given. But I have also watched Netflix documentaries on Ancient Rome which had slightly more to offer in terms of production value.

This point cannot be stressed enough: “Queen Cleopatra” does not deserve the publicity it has got, but because of Netflix’s cynical use of race-baiting as a marketing tactic, it did. And because of the underhanded, and particularly vile, marketing tactic they used, it does not deserve to be viewed, because it has nothing else to offer other than the controversy it generated.

But in my previous article on the controversy, I fumed about how every time an entertainment company chooses to “blackwash” a “White” story they are spending money on not telling an actual Black story.

And this is the second time in this article that I have to backtrack on what I wrote because while I, and everyone else, are so focused on Black Cleopatra, an actual Black story went under our radar.

And had I applied myself sufficiently then, I would have noticed that Netflix actually has a documentary, and a good one, to tell such a story. But because of the marketing tactics Netflix used, no one talks about that. And I fell for it like a stooge. But so did a lot of us, which makes me feel slightly less like a gullible idiot.

I will now rectify my own lack of due diligence, but also further prove the point that Netflix cynically and calculatedly chooses to advertise some shows, but not others.

Because if you have three hours of your preciously short life to spare on watching something, then you want to spare it on watching a documentary about an actual Black African queen. And Netflix has you covered. And that show was also produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith.


Njinga (or Nzinga) was a royal princess and later ruler of the kingdoms of Ndongo and later also Matamba, which are located in modern-day Angola.
Adesuwa Oni as Njinga in Netflix’s “African Queens: Njinga” (2023, dir. by Susannah Ward). Photo: screen capture from the trailer.

Netflix released a four-part documentary series about Njinga, directed by Susannah Ward and starring Adesuwa Oni as the eponymous queen, in mid-February.

It seems to have gone completely under the radar. Proof? Google “Njinga Netflix documentary review” and “Cleopatra Netflix documentary review”. In spite of a three-month head start, the former produces just shy of 30,000 results, and the latter already has more than 6.5 million results.

There are parallels between Njinga and Cleopatra (the historical characters): both were smooth operators in terms of politics and strategy, as well as ruthless when the circumstances called for it. Just as Cleopatra struggled to maintain Egypt’s independence, so did Njinga. And they had to struggle against encroachment from foreign powers: Cleopatra against Romans, Njinga against the Portuguese. Both encroaching powers also desired something that Egypt and Ndongo had: Egypt had grain, while Ndongo, and other African states in the area, had people who could be captured as slaves, which the Portuguese wanted to use to colonize and cultivate their colonies in Brazil.

While the Portuguese are the main antagonists, “Njinga” does not shy away from admitting that there were locals who were perfectly willing to capture and sell the slaves to the colonizers. Nor does it pretend that the institution of slavery was absent from Africa, while also pointing out the difference in the understanding of the institution and the slaves’ status between Africans and Europeans.

Having been refused a chair to sit on during her meeting with the Portuguese governor, Njinga sat on the back of one of her servants instead, which is one of the most badass Girl Boss moves in history. The report of how the servant felt about it is sadly lacking from the records. The event is recreated in the show. Photo: Public Domain.

As for the production value, there is no point in tiptoeing about it. It is on par with that of “Queen Cleopatra” and uses the same tricks. But there is something jarring when you contrast the royal crown worn by the Ngola (a king, here you might also notice where the name of the modern-day country originated from) made from leather and sea shells, and what an impression it makes when Cleopatra crowns herself with what looks like a cheap plastic tiara covered in golden-colored tin foil.

You expect opulence from Ancient Egypt. Perhaps not so much from an African kingdom in the 17th century (perhaps this betrays our prejudices), but when the narrator in “Njinga” (Ms. Pinkett-Smith, no less, who also narrated Cleopatra and now we can guess on whose salary the bulk of the budget was spent), tells you that Ndongo was a more sophisticated civilization than our imagination of the area in the period would let us believe, it is much more easily accepted than when ancient Egypt is portrayed using cheap props and a meager CGI budget.

And it is a nice touch that Njinga’s queenly headgear bears similarities to that worn by a ”Njinga’s” expert “talking head”, which comes in the form of Queen Diambi Kabatusuila Tshiyoyo Muata.

Diambi Kabatusuila is the queen (or perhaps rather more appropriately, as she is introduced in the show, a female king) of the Bakwa Luntu people, whose homeland lies in the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo nowadays but whose Luba Empire stretched into modern-day northern Angola. Her purpose on the show is to explain the spirituality and culture of the people of the region.

Netflix did not extend the courtesy of inviting an expert historian from Egypt to take part in their Cleopatra endeavor. Seeing the backlash it generated, my guess is none would want to participate in the appropriation of their history. Unless their nan told them not to listen to their teachers and were visited by shadowy figures in their dreams.

Your takeaway from this

The number of reviews of each of the respective seasons of the “African Queens” show attests to the fact that generating controversy with “diverse casting”, and in the case of “Queen Cleopatra”, falsifying history in the process, serves as little more than a marketing strategy.

The question is, should we allow Netflix to get away with it, and the answer should be a loud and resounding “NO”.

Do not dignify the race-baiting, low-production-value schlocky excuse for a documentary that “Queen Cleopatra” is by viewing it. I devoted three hours of my life to watching it to be able to tell you that it is not worth it (I could have done as much without watching anything other than the trailer), and then I dedicated an additional three hours to watching “Njinga” to give you a viable alternative that is actually worth watching. Which in a way made up for the time wasted on the former.

“Njinga” will give you a chance to learn something about a historical figure you likely know little to nothing about, and who deserves due recognition. So powerful is her story, that when Angolans fought to shed Portuguese colonial overlordship in the 1960s and 1970s, Njinga was one of their icons.

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Everybody already knows the story of Cleopatra. The producers’ appropriation of her story to boost someone’s fragile ego at the expense of a nation of over 100 million people that is fiercely proud and protective of its history, and which nation has received backlash from the people who are least deserving to have a say in the whole affair (Ms. James, I am looking at you), does not deserve recognition.

Netflix deserves to be properly housebroken. Put their noses, and their algorithms, in the mess of their own making. Boost the figures of “Njinga” and let the figures of “Queen Cleopatra” plummet into oblivion, where this cheap, race-baiting, exploitative mess deserves to end up.