Hannibal film embroils Denzel Washington, Netflix in race debate

Denzel Washington's next starring role is embroiled in controversy.

Denzel Washington's next starring role is embroiled in controversy. Photo: Getty

The casting of Hollywood legend Denzel Washington as a historical figure in an upcoming Netflix film has sparked a race row in Tunisia.

Washington is set to star as ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal in the untitled film, directed by the actor’s frequent collaborator Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer).

The actor’s casting as Hannibal, the general born in what is modern-day Tunisia, has prompted some Tunisian news outlets to lambast the film’s “historical error”.

“The choice of Denzel Washington to play Hannibal raises profound questions about Afrocentrism, historical fidelity and the challenges of casting in the film industry,” a La Presse article reads.

During a parliamentary session, Tunisian politician Yassine Mami said it is important that Tunisia informs itself about the content of the Netflix film “to protect itself against a possible falsification of historical facts”.

However, Minister of Cultural Affairs Hayet Guettat Guermazi said the government couldn’t intervene in the casting given the film will likely be more fiction than historical fact.

She also indicated Tunisian authorities were seeking to negotiate with Netflix so that certain sequences of the film would be shot in Tunisia.

Hannibal famously led an army of warriors and elephants across the Alps to fight the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War (218BC to 201BC).

He hailed from Carthage, a settlement in an area now known as Tunisia, the North African country where a majority of the population is Arab.

Although no exact description of Hannibal’s appearance exists, ancient Carthaginians were Phoenician, a Semitic people.

It is also thought Hannibal’s family came from what is now modern-day Lebanon, so it is largely assumed he would have had an Arab appearance – or at least would have been less likely to be Black.

Neither Netflix nor Washington have publicly commented on the debate over the actor’s casting.

Recent backlash over race

Washington’s situation mirrors similar backlash over the casting choice for Netflix’s four-part documentary Queen Cleopatra, released in May.

The series saw British actror Adele James (who is also Black) take on the titular role, which has largely been played by white actresses in past Western productions, a famous example being Elizabeth Taylor.

Cleopatra – via Elizabeth Taylor and Adele James – is rarely portrayed accurately according to historical descriptions. Photos: TND/Netflix/Getty

James’ casting was criticised by ‘anti-woke’ social media users and Egyptian authorities, who pointed out statues of Queen Cleopatra confirm she had Hellenistic (Greek) features, including light skin.

“Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but 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,” Netflix said in a statement at the time.

The BBC also came under fire this month for choosing British-Indian actor Nathaniel Curtis to play Isaac Newton in a Doctor Who anniversary special.

Topics: Netflix
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