Netflix’s casting of Black actor Denzel Washington as the ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal in an upcoming film has sparked criticism in Tunisia.
Hannibal, who was born near modern-day Tunis, is considered one of history’s greatest military leaders. During the war against Rome in 218 B.C., he led his troops and African war elephants across a high pass in the Alps to strike at his adversaries from the north.
While Hannibal’s skin color is not known, most historians agree he was of Phoenician descent, a region encompassing modern Lebanon and Syria. Earlier in November, Tunisian news outlet La Presse published an article claiming that the casting represented a “historical error.”
Social media users accused Netflix of promoting “woke culture,” with thousands signing an online petition to cancel the “pseudo-documentary,” The Guardian reported. The petition also urged the Tunisian Ministry of Culture to “take action against the attempt to steal our history.”
Following the announcement from Netflix regarding Washington’s role, Tunisian MP Yassine Mami questioned Culture Minister Hayet Ketat Guermazi about the project in parliament.
“The ministry should take a position on the subject,” Mami said, adding, “This is about defending Tunisian identity and listening to the reactions of civil society.”
Speaking in the assembly, Guermazi explained that her ministry was instead focused on negotiating with Netflix to shoot some of the film’s scenes in Tunisia.
“It’s fiction; it’s their right. Hannibal is a historical figure, even if we’re all proud that he’s Tunisian … What could we do?” Guermazi said. “What matters to me is that they shoot even one sequence in Tunisia and mention it. We want Tunisia to become a platform for foreign films again.”
The issue of racial identity has gained prominence in Tunisia, particularly with the recent influx of sub-Saharan migrants. President Kais Saied faced criticism for his unsubstantiated claims in February that these migrants were part of a plot to change Tunisia’s predominantly Arab demographic to “purely African,” The Guardian reported.
The announcement of Washington’s role came after a similar controversy on race and representation in neighboring Egypt over Netflix’s casting of Adele James, an actor of mixed heritage, as Cleopatra. The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry later issued a statement claiming that the pharaonic ruler had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics.”
Netflix and Washington, who has previously portrayed Malcolm X and Shakespeare’s Scottish Macbeth, have not commented.
(c) 2023 the Arab News
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