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Tunisians take issue with Denzel Washington playing historic general in new film


Denzel Washington being cast in Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming Netflix movie as ancient Carthaginian general Hannibal is sparking some controversy in Tunisia, the home country of the great military commander.

According to French newspaper Courrier International, there are complaints about depicting the Carthaginian general as a Black African being made in the media and the Tunisian parliament. Member of Parliament Yassine Mami has pointed out that Hannibal, who was born in 247 BC in Carthage — now known as Tunis, the Tunisian capital — was of West Asian Semitic origin. “There is a risk of falsifying history: we need to take position on this subject,” the Tunisian politician reportedly stated.

Concurrently, French-language Tunisian newspaper La Presse has published an editorial in which it similarly objects that depicting Hannibal as a Black African is “according to Tunisians and many observers, a historical error.”

However, Tunisian culture minister Hayet Ketat-Guermazi had a different, more pragmatic take on the matter.

“It’s fiction. It is their [Netflix‘s] right to do what they want,” she responded, according to French newspaper Le Monde. “Hannibal is a historical figure and we are all proud that he was Tunisian. But what can we do?” She went on to note that she is trying to negotiate with Netflix to shoot at least a portion of the film in Tunisia. “I hope they decide to shoot at least a sequence of the film here and that that this is publicized. We want Tunisia to go back to being a location where foreign films are shot,” Ketat-Guermazi said, as reported by Le Monde.

Representatives for Netflix, Washington and Fuqua did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The controversy in Tunisia over Washington playing Hannibal is reminiscent of the uproar sparked in Egypt in April over Britain’s Adele James, who is of mixed heritage, playing Cleopatra in Netflix’s docudrama “Queen Cleopatra.” The first-century Egyptian queen was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 69 BC and belonged to a Greek-speaking dynasty. Egyptian academics went on a rampage over the fact that Cleopatra was of European descent and not Black.

The still-untitled film about the Carthaginian general will be written by John Logan, the three-time Academy Award winner who scribed Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.”

According to the official logline, the movie is “based on real-life warrior Hannibal, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history. The film covers the pivotal battles he led against the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War.”

Hannibal invaded Italy while riding a Northern African war elephant. Under his lead, the Carthaginians won key victories against the Romans, allowing Hannibal to occupy the majority of southern Italy for 15 years. Eventually, Hannibal was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Zama after they counter-invaded North Africa.

Fuqua most recently directed Washington in the action-thriller “The Equalizer 3,” in which Washington reprised his role as ex-Marine Robert McCall.

Washington is currently involved in another war epic, the upcoming sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” which has resumed shooting in Malta after production was halted due to the SAG-AFTRA strike

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