MICHAEL MORRIS: There’s no getting away from racial bias - Business Day

Sometimes, at a distance, the contemporary obsession with appearances can be amusing.

Michael Morris 
Sometimes, at a distance, the contemporary obsession with appearances can be amusing. 

A striking recent instance of the inevitable absurdity of fussing about skin colour at the expense of substance (or actual identity) is the latest saga over a Netflix series portraying Cleopatra as a black African, which, according to the BBC, has “sparked controversy in Egypt”. 

Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint demanding that Egypt take steps against Netflix for casting British actress Adele James as the Egyptian ruler, as this was to “promote ... Afrocentric thinking ... distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity”. 

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass is quoted as saying the casting “is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black”. 

Cleopatra was born in Alexandria in 69 BCE and became the last queen of a 300-year Greek-speaking dynasty founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy. She succeeded her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BCE and ruled until her death in 30 BCE.  

Knowing this doesn’t really help in settling the question of what Cleopatra looked like though. I think if I were pressed to take a position I’d rest on the insight of noted British historian Mary Beard that the thousands of depictions of Cleopatra through the ages are “based on a perilous series of deductions from fragmentary or flagrantly unreliable evidence”. So little is really known, Beard suggests, that Cleopatra should appear to us today as “the queen without a face”. 

Which is why I think James’s riposte — “if you don't like the casting, don’t watch the show” — is fair enough. Considering Beard’s observation, what possible objection could there be to James’s candidacy for the role? 

The especial irony in the drama over the Netflix depiction is that, less than two years ago, the argument ran the other way. When plans for a new movie about Cleopatra were announced towards the end of 2020 — with Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known for her Hollywood depictions of Wonder Woman, in the lead role — there was an outcry that this amounted to “cultural whitewashing”, and that the role should really go to an Arab or African actress. 

On every side, it seems, someone is hot under the collar about all this and, given the ironies — and the absence of verifiable knowledge — it is all quite amusing. Closer to home though, mistaking appearance for identity is far less amusing. Put another way, there is nothing very funny about its consequences.

Against unemployment that is among the highest globally, it ought to be important to ask whether the ANC’s latest race law, the Employment Equity Amendment Act, has any hope of stimulating job creation, or indeed of overcoming inherited inequity.  

At the heart of such race legislation is the fiction that black people (or white people) can be understood — and engaged with or served — simply on the grounds of what they look like. Embedded here is the moral confusion of, for example, those who might say they couldn’t support Bafana Bafana “because it is too black”, or the DA “because it is too white”.  

By this perverted rationale those who are left behind — jobless, poorly educated and desperately needing real empowerment — are rendered invisible (assumed to be taken care of) by race law that fails to take their measure as real people.  

This is an insult black people don’t deserve, for it relies on a premise that bears no credible relation to their skills, resourcefulness, judgment, agency or independence of mind. It is tragic that, in 2023, their race is being made to count against them once more.  

Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.