Netflix Prompts Backlash After Casting Denzel Washington To Play Carthaginian Military Leader Hannibal

Natasha Biase

The North African nation of Tunisia is slamming Netflix for casting a Black actor to play the role of the great military leader Hannibal. In an as-of-yet untitled upcoming movie, Denzel Washington is confirmed to lead the charge as the Carthaginian general.

According to Courrier International, Hannibal symbolized “the greatness of Carthaginian civilization,” and was known for leading the armies during the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BC against the Roman Empire.

Although Hannibal’s precise ethnicity has been a topic of debate among historians, there is a generally-accepted understanding that his family were Phoenicians, which means that they would conventionally be described as a Semitic people. According to historical Patrick Hunt, there had been “little to no Africanization” in Hannibal’s region before or during his era.

This week, complaints were made to Tunisian officials about Netflix’s decision to blackwash history. According to one Member of Parliament, Yassine Mami, Hannibal, born in 247 BC in the Tunisian capital of Carthage, “was of West Asian Semitic origin.”

“There is a risk of falsifying history: we need to take a position on this subject,” said Mami, adding that it’s important for Tunisia to be aware of the film’s artistic choices “to protect itself against a possible falsification of historical facts.”

Despite many expressing concerns about Hannibal being portrayed as a “Black African,” Tunisian culture minister Hayet Ketat-Guermazi explained that because the film is fictional, it is impossible to get involved in the creative process.

“It’s fiction. It is [Netflix’s] right to do what they want,” explained Ketat-Guermazi. “Hannibal is a historical figure, and we are all proud that he was Tunisian. But what can we do?” 

She continued: “I hope they decide to shoot at least a sequence of the film here and that this is publicized. We want Tunisia to go back to being a location where foreign films are shot.”

News that Oscar award-winning actor Washington will star as Hannibal comes on the heels of several other controversies surrounding Netflix’s decision to “race swap” key figures in their dramatizations.

As previously reported by The Publica, the streaming company’s new series Painkiller, inspired by a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma’s opioid manufacturing, has sparked outrage for casting aBlack woman to represent the team of investigators responsible for exposing the pharmaceutical company.

The series stars Orange Is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba as Edie Flowers and follows “the victims and perpetrators whose lives have been altered by Purdue Pharma, the business behind OxyContin.”

Despite several investigators being involved in the takedown of Purdue, the decision to have one woman embody the team was not only for  “the sake of the story” but also an attempt “to ensure that the hero of the television series had one singular face.”

So far, the series has debuted with an official score of 51% on Rotten Tomato, with a slightly higher audience score of 61%.

Netflix’s biopic Queen Cleopatra sparked similar outrage for casting bBlack actress Adele James in the role of the first-century Egyptian royal. Although she was born in Egypt in 69 BC, critics were quick to point out she was of Macedonian-Greek ancestry and should have been played by a caucasian actress.

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