We can imagine the brainstorming between feverish agents stuck on Zoom: “What other ‘powerful woman’ could therefore embody Gal Gadot while keeping this empowerment mix, golden finery and miniskirt?” Cleopatra! Already done ? Not like that, swears the Israeli star, now one of Hollywood’s biggest cachets. “We are going to tell this story through the eyes of women, in front of and behind the camera”, enlisting Patty Jenkins, director of the two Wonder Woman of DC / Warner (the sequel saw its release pushed back by the pandemic) and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (behind theAlexandre d’Oliver Stone).
Ce pitch pseudo-woke (that is to say “progressive” according to the zeitgeist) will not have held a quarter of an hour on the ruthless social networks, triggering the most boring, even stinking controversy of the week, the grievances legitimate around the diversity on the screen finding itself quickly covered by antisemitic hints and endless debates on the color of the “real” Cleopatra, even more mysterious than the curve of her nasal ridge for archaeologists.
There are those who consider the Egyptian to be an Arab or African heroine, a historical figure again “whitened” by Hollywood. From Yul Brynner to Australian self-tanner Joel Edgerton in Ramses II at Ridley Scott’s, peplums, from the golden age to post-Gladiator, have always cast whites on thrones and minorities to hold the fan, while we now know the Roman Empire (of which Cleopatra’s Egypt was part) much more mixed than that.
The pro-Gadot troops, starting with the scribe Kalogridis, opened a counterfire by arguing that the descendant of the Ptolemies – even if several historians believe that the dynasty necessarily mingled with the natives by dint of orgies – was before all “Greco-Macedonian”.
Mediterranean therefore. Just like Gadot, his defenders advance. This is where the Israeli-Arab conflict takes place, far from the debate on the color chart. Israeli, Ashkenazi Jewish, the very smooth Gal Gadot remains for the majority of the Arab world an intruder in the Middle East (Wonder Woman was even censored in Lebanon), repeatedly referred to her military service in the ranks of the IDF and to her condemnations of Hamas during the 2014 war in Gaza. “After stealing the lands of the Arabs, you steal their roles”, launched on Twitter Sameera Khan, ex-Miss New Jersey who became a journalist at Russia Today.
More than yet another modern identity fight, the controversy is terribly vintage. In 1962, the choice of “Zionist” Liz Taylor to play the Queen of the Nile had ulcerated Nasser, Egyptian president and champion of pan-Arabism. The English actress had converted a few years earlier to Judaism and raised funds for Israel at charity galas, leading to the boycott of her films and the impossibility of filming in the land of the pharaohs. But in 1964, Cairo backed down. With 122 mentions of the word “Egypt”, Mankiewicz’s monumental kitchery was considered the best publicity possible for the country.
Guillaume Gendron correspondent in Tel Aviv