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Please don't whitewash Cleopatra.
Judging by that recent picture of you and Sony chief Amy Pascal, I’m sure you’re still pretty salty over her comments about you. As well you should be. The now infamous email exchange between Pascal and producer Scott Rudin stemmed from your plans to star in a film about the Egyptian queen. I’d like you to capture that feeling, multiply it by a thousand and that can give you an idea of how Black actresses feel having to navigate in an industry that does not value their womanhood or humanity. I want you to imagine what it would be like for an actress of color to be told to her face “We’re not going ethnic with this role” or “I just don’t think it would be believable for a Black woman to play an Ivy League graduate.” All true stories, as a glimpse at Cleopatra’s lengthy Hollywood history will attest. Most of the story is set in Egypt, and most of the characters are Egyptians, but Hollywood's go-to casting template has almost always been White—the campiest example being 1963's "Cleopatra," which starred Elizabeth Taylor, an England-born Caucasian woman, as the Queen of the Nile.
You have even more varied career opportunities now than Taylor did then—an artistic maneuvering space wider than any actress of color has ever had in the United States. In your two-decade career, you’ve been able to play everything from a computer hacker to a fairy-tale anti-heroine to a gun-toting treasure hunter. But not once would a casting director ever say or think that your Whiteness would be a hindrance in playing any of those characters. Not once would a studio executive tell you that the color of your skin might be a box office liability in certain countries, or that, while it might be possible for you to play an Egyptian, for a variety of reasons it might not be wise or good.
This isn’t to say you or other White actresses haven’t worked hard for your success. But here’s the thing—you can only compete when you’re on a level playing field. A racially biased industry makes true meritocracy hard. Lack of support and mentorship from established White artists and studio execs makes it nearly impossible. Actresses don’t land on the Hollywood scene with instant acclaim and bankability. You need to build a body of work, role by role, and find that one breakthrough part that will allow studios to invest in you. The hard reality is that no studio will invest in you unless you're White, or have a powerful or respected White person—an actor, a producer, a director, a studio head—watching out for you, vouching for you, watching your back.
Currently there are no movie franchises being helmed by Black actresses. In 2013, Halle Berry and Paula Patton were the only two Black actresses who headlined films from major or mid-level studios. As Chris Rock stated in his Hollywood Reporter essay, “I go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a Black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie.” Hollywood is more than happy to keep Black women invisible, because there's no financial penalty in doing so, and barely a cultural one. As far they’re concerned, giving a fair opportunity to somebody who looks like me, or your daughter Zahara, ranks low on their list of priorities.
You have the power to lift it up. You truly do. Your husband Brad Pitt, a producer on "12 Years a Slave" and "Selma," and other socially and historically conscious films, is plugged into a dynamic network of Black actress-producers like Oprah Winfrey, as well as filmmakers of color, including Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay, who might be willing to help bring your epic vision to life. These are artists who understand the limitations Hollywood puts on Black folks, but blazed their own trails regardless. You know them as well. You've worked with them. They may even be trusted advisors or friends. Or studio executives.
By using your clout and influence, and drawing on the wisdom and power of your colleagues in the industry, you can say, “Black women’s lives matter. Black girls’ lives matter.” Unfortunately when people in this country think of the words “beautiful” and “woman”—the default thinking in America is almost always White. By casting a Black actress as Cleopatra, you would disrupt that status quo, shaking Hollywood to its very core.
I’m sure you will have people who are heavily invested in White supremacy in Hollywood tell you “So what if you play Cleopatra? She wasn’t 'really' Black.” You can sidestep that argument, which is problematic on all sorts of levels, and remind them that Hollywood has never been so strict when the color wheel ran in the other direction. The character you played in “Wanted,” Fox, was actually a Black woman in the original comics; the books' creator went on record saying he based her on Halle Berry. Think of all the Black girls and women who watched “Wanted” and had no knowledge of this. Casting a Black Cleopatra in your movie would be, at the very least, a partial righting of the karmic casting scales.
There are so many accomplished actresses of color who could play Cleopatra, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lupita Nyong’o, Carmen Ejogo, Teyonah Parris or Rosario Dawson. These are just off the top of my head; there might be others who aren't well-known yet, but who could become stars in a role like this, in a film that cast an unknown or semi-known performer in the lead role and surround her with bigger names. Imagine the thrill of coming on set with Zahara and have her see one of these beautiful actresses walk out in full Egyptian regalia. Equally important would be for your children, John and Vivienne, to see the beauty and power of Black women that has long been denied on the big screen, and know that their mother made a point of trying, in her own small way, to set things right.
I close by asking you to bring the same passion and zeal you have in speaking for the poor and marginalized around the world and apply it to the factory of art and commerce in which you are but one undeniably significant wheel. For Black women in Hollywood right now, the situation is dire. By standing up for Black actresses, you’re advocating for Zahara and every little Black girl around the world. By all means, make your historical film, and in the process, make history.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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