Denzel Washington’s Hannibal casting on Netflix sparks criticism in Tunisia

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Denzel Washington

LONDON, Dec 13: Netflix’s decision to cast actor Denzel Washington, who is Black, as the ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal in an upcoming film has generated criticism in Tunisia.

Hannibal, a renowned military leader born near modern-day Tunis, played a pivotal role in history. In 218 B.C., during the war against Rome, he led his troops and African war elephants across the Alps to strike at his adversaries from the north.

While historians acknowledge uncertainty about Hannibal’s skin color, there is general agreement that he was of Phoenician descent, originating from the region that includes modern-day Lebanon and Syria. In November, Tunisian news outlet La Presse published an article suggesting that the casting constituted a “historical error.”

On social media, accusations were made against Netflix for promoting “woke culture,” leading to thousands signing an online petition to cancel the film titled “pseudo-documentary” by The Guardian. The petition also called on the Tunisian Ministry of Culture to “address the attempt to misrepresent our history.”

Following Netflix’s announcement of Washington’s role, Tunisian MP Yassine Mami raised questions in parliament, urging Culture Minister Hayet Ketat Guermazi to respond.

“The ministry needs to take a stance on the matter,” Mami asserted, emphasizing the importance of defending Tunisian identity and considering civil society reactions.

Speaking in the assembly, Guermazi clarified that her ministry was focused on negotiating with Netflix to shoot some of the film’s scenes in Tunisia.

“It’s a work of fiction, and it’s within their rights. Hannibal is a historical figure, and although we are proud that he is Tunisian, there is limited influence on the casting,” Guermazi stated. “Our priority is to have scenes shot in Tunisia and acknowledged. We want Tunisia to be a platform for foreign films once again.”

The issue of racial identity has gained prominence in Tunisia, notably with the increasing presence of sub-Saharan migrants. President Kais Saied faced criticism earlier for his unverified claims that these migrants were part of a plot to alter Tunisia’s predominantly Arab demographic to “purely African,” as reported by The Guardian.

Washington’s casting announcement follows a similar controversy in neighboring Egypt over Netflix’s selection of Adele James, an actor of mixed heritage, as Cleopatra. The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry later asserted that the historical ruler had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics.”

As of now, Netflix and Washington, known for their portrayals of Malcolm X and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, have not provided comments on the matter.

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