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Denzel Washington Under Fire For Portraying Character Of Different Ethnicity—The Latest Actor Drawing Criticism

Topline

Denzel Washington is facing criticism from Tunisian officials and media for his casting in an upcoming Netflix film as the ancient war general Hannibal, who was born in Tunisia but is of West Asian descent, making him the latest actor this year to face criticism for not matching the ethnic or racial origin of his character.

Some Tunisian politicians and media outlets criticized Washington’s casting as Hannibal. (Photo by … [+] Ivan Romano/Getty Images)

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Key Facts

Washington, a Black actor, is set to portray the Carthaginian general Hannibal in an upcoming film, which has drawn the ire of some Tunisian officials because historians largely believe Hannibal is of Phoenecian descent, coming from an area in modern-day Lebanon.

Hannibal, known as one of the greatest ancient military generals, is remembered as a hero in Tunisia: many stores and hotels bear his name, his face has long graced Tunisian currency and he is considered a source of national pride.

Tunisian Member of Parliament Yassine Mami criticized Washington’s casting, stating the film risks “falsifying history.”

Tunisian culture minister Hayet Ketat-Guermazi said although Netflix has the “right to do what they want,” she urged the studio to film part of the movie in Tunisia, adding “we are all proud that he was Tunisian.”

La Presse, a Tunisian newspaper, criticized Washington’s casting as, “according to Tunisians and many observers, a historical error,” and blamed the casting choice on the “woke” movement.

Key Background

Several recent films and television series have come under fire for casting actors to portray subjects of a different racial or ethnic origin. Bradley Cooper and Helen Mirren both faced criticism for portraying Jewish characters this year, while neither actor is Jewish. Cooper attracted controversy for using a prosthetic nose to play composer Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro,” which critics considered antisemitic and evocative of negative stereotypes about Jewish people. In a statement cosigned by Berstein’s children, his estate said Cooper’s choice to wear the prosthetic nose was “perfectly fine.” Earlier this year, Netflix came under fire for casting Adele James, a mixed-race Jamaican and English woman, in “Queen Cleopatra” as the titular Egyptian ruler, whose racial identity has long been the subject of debate. Egypt’s antiquities ministry published a statement amid the controversy, citing experts who said Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics.” Egyptian archaeologist Mostafa Waziri said Netflix’s portrayal of the ruler was a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy.” He denied the backlash to James’ casting was racist, stating he was concerned about defending Cleopatra’s history. “Queen Cleopatra” producers defended their casting choice, stating: “We did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of Ancient Egypt.” Remakes of several classic Disney films came under fire this year for casting actors whose racial identities did not match the characters’ portrayal in the original. Some right-wing pundits and social media users accused Disney of going “woke” for casting Halle Bailey, a Black woman, and Rachel Zegler, a Hispanic woman, as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and Snow White in an upcoming film. Some fans of “Lilo and Stitch” criticized the casting of Sydney Agudong as Nani, Lilo’s older sister, because Nani is darker-skinned in the original film.

Surprising Fact

This isn’t the first time a portrayal of Hannibal as Black sparked online criticism. In the 2016 History Channel miniseries “Barbarians Rising,” Black British actor Nicholas Pinnock portrayed Hannibal. In a clip from the series on the History Channel’s YouTube account, some viewers voiced concerns with what they considered an inaccurate portrayal of the military general.

Tangent

The Hannibal film was announced last month, with Washington set to star and Antoine Fuqua to direct. John Logan, who previously penned the 2000 historical epic “Gladiator,” is writing the film. The movie will follow the battles Hannibal led against the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War between 218 B.C. and 201 B.C., Deadline reported.

Further Reading

Denzel Washington’s Casting as Ancient General Hannibal in Antoine Fuqua Netflix Film Sparks Controversy in Tunisia (Variety)

Casting choices of Helen Mirren and Bradley Cooper raise questions in ‘Golda’ and ‘Maestro’ (CNN)

Adele James Talks Netflix’s Controversial ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Series: “Blackwashing Isn’t a Thing” (The Hollywood Reporter)

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