Tuesday, October 27, 2020 -
Print Edition

A descendant of slaves rises

News is released that Israeli actress Gal Gadot landed a starring role, playing Cleopatra, the famed queen of the Nile, and, predictably, the reaction is, a kerfuffle.


Because Gal Gadot is Jewish. She’s Israeli.

Some claimed a “more authentic” actor should have been chosen. Perhaps someone Arab or African.

While Cleopatra is associated with ruling Egypt, in reality she was descended from Greeks and was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. So in this time of increased awareness of representation in Hollywood, the outcry by critics was, why wasn’t an Arab or African actress chosen to star in this role?

I applaud Hollywood for making the choice to star Gal Gadot on her own merit, who incidentally, also fills the precise parameters of more representation we’ve been hearing so much about.

It’s just an aside, but generally speaking, it’s hard not to chuckle at the thought of people’s righteous indignation decrying what they perceive as Hollywood’s inauthenticity in choosing Gal Gadot for the role of Cleopatra. Of all places, Hollywood. Itnot exactly a bastion of realism and genuineness. We’re talking Hollywood, whose essence, by definition, is to make believe, to act “as if.”

After all, we are talking about acting, you know, pretending to be someone else.

In every medium, storytelling is so compelling. I enjoy and appreciate a good, powerful movie as much as the next person. But, let’s remember the context of this controversy. It’s the context of acting.

Hollywood is the place men have played women in movies. Elizabeth Taylor, a white American woman, last played Cleopatra.

It’s commendable that Hollywood is making an effort to be more inclusive in its casting choices, to represent more people of color and people of other cultures. By choosing Gal Gadot Hollywood is in fact doing just that.

When there is an outcry specifically when a Jewish woman is the choice, it strikes me as people wanting to see Hollywood have selective representation. Gal Gadot was not the narrative they had in mind when promoting more representation. Had it been any other non-American, non-white, non-Christian who was chosen, the choice would have been lauded by these very people who cry “more representation!”

A Jew who talks about how she starts her day out saying the morning prayer recited upon rising, “Modeh Ani,” and doesn’t take anything for granted? Nah. She’s Jewish. She’s Israeli. Then somehow she doesn’t fit the definition or narrative of more representation.

Unless Hollywood was planning on casting a Macedonian or Greek woman, no other choice would have been closer to the source of authenticity. But because the actress is Jewish, is Israeli, somehow it’s acceptable to protest this choice. Like it’s an insult to the role as she is pigeonholed as “white,” as “European,” playing a non-white woman.

Furthermore, remember Passover? Remember the Jews being the original slaves in Egypt?

In today’s climate of empowerment of minorities or the underdog, one would think that the very people who normally would laud someone whose ancestors were an underdog now reaching the pinnacle of entertainment society, to the point of being cast in the role of the ruler of the oppressor country, would be the ultimate progressive poetic justice, so to speak.

The Hebrews, the Jews of today, the Israelis of today, built ancient Egypt. The treasured cities, Pitom and Ramses, were the fruit of their blood, sweat and tears over the course of 210 years of slavery. Now, remarkably, a descendent of that people will play the role of, granted, not the oppressive ruler at the particular era of the slavery, but a ruler of that land nonetheless.

If Gal Gadot were not Jewish, if she were not Israeli, if she were any other minority, precisely the people who are complaining about her selection, precisely the people who cry out for more representation, would be all over this story.

The descendant of the disempowered of Egypt, the descendant of the enslaved of Egypt , is now playing its ruler.

But what can you do. Gal Gadot is Jewish, She’s Israeli. She doesn’t fit the narrative of what people think “more representation” means and should look like. Somehow, it’s acceptable in the crowd that cries “representation” to make the Jew, the Israeli, the exception to every rule.

I hope Hollywood sticks to its guns and choice in casting Gal Gadot as Cleopatra.

That, more than any Oscar winning movie, would really give something to respect Hollywood for.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

Leave a Reply