The decision to cast black actor Denzel Washington as the ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal in an upcoming Netflix film has sparked a small but heated debate in Tunisia, the military general’s birthplace.
After a similar debate over race and representation in neighboring Egypt over a Netflix docudrama about Cleopatra, Tunisian newspapers, social media and even the halls of parliament have witnessed debate over the color of the long-deceased leader’s skin.
French-language Tunisian news agency La Presse Published an article saying the casting created a “historical wrong,” while some users on social media accused Netflix of promoting “woke culture.” An online petition signed by 1,300 people urged Netflix to “cancel its fake documentary” and called on the Ministry of Culture to “take action against the attempt to steal our history.”
Hannibal, born in Carthage, near present-day Tunis, is considered one of the greatest military leaders in history. During the war against the Romans in 218 BC, he led his troops and African war elephants across a high pass in the Alps to strike Rome from the north. For 15 years, he ravaged the land and people, but was never able to capture Rome, and was eventually forced to return to North Africa.
Hannibal’s skin color is unknown. Historians of the ancient Mediterranean world largely agree that he was of Phoenician origin – a region that includes modern-day Lebanon and Syria – although he lived in a time of great empires and mixing.
The issue of race has recently come to the fore in Tunisia due to the influx of sub-Saharan migrants into the country. President Kais Saied was accused of creating an “imaginary enemy” in February when he claimed, without evidence, that migrants were part of a broader campaign to make Arab-majority Tunisia “purely African.”
After Netflix announced Washington’s role, Tunisian MP Yacine Mami questioned Culture Minister Hayat Katat Qarmazi about the project in Parliament.
“The ministry must take a position on this issue,” said Mami, who is also the head of the Tourism, Culture and Services Committee. “It is about defending Tunisian identity and listening to the reactions of civil society,” he said.
Speaking to the assembly, Qarmezi said her ministry instead focused on negotiating with Netflix to film some of the film’s scenes in Tunisia.
“It is a fantasy; This is their right. Hannibal is a historical figure, even if we are all proud that he is Tunisian… What can we do?” Al-Girmazi said. “What matters to me is that they film even one scene in Tunisia and mention it. “We want Tunisia to become a platform for foreign films again.”
Earlier this year, Netflix cast Adele James, an actress of mixed heritage, to play Cleopatra, prompting Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities to publish a statement declaring that the pharaonic leader had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics.”
Netflix and Washington, which previously played the black American civil rights activist Malcolm
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