Tunisians have accused Netflix of “stealing” their history by casting Denzel Washington as General Hannibal in an upcoming film about the military leader who almost toppled Rome.
They say Hannibal, who famously marched elephants over the Alps with his infantry and cavalry, was a Carthaginian of Phoenician background, meaning he was most likely pale-skinned.
Some Tunisians have also complained that Washington, the star of Malcolm X and Macbeth, is too old for the role.
The Oscar-winning actor is 68, whereas Hannibal was in his late twenties when he invaded Italy during the Second Punic War in the third century BC.
Washington’s casting in the film, which is due to start filming next year, was announced by Netflix in November.
The streaming giant said he was preparing to take the part of “one of the greatest military leaders in recorded history”.
But Yassine Mami, an MP, raised the issue in Tunisia’s parliament, saying that there was “a risk of falsifying history” by having a black actor represent the general.
‘Defend Tunisian identity’
Mr Mami, president of a tourism and culture committee, said it was important to “defend Tunisian identity”.
In an editorial, the French language newspaper La Presse said that the prospect of Washington playing the role “is not appealing to many critics” and that it would be a “historical error” because Hannibal was a “white Semite”.
A petition has been launched, urging the Tunisian culture ministry to “enshrine in law measures protecting and fostering our culture and to act against this attempt to steal our history”.
The organisers of the petition said Netflix was propagating an “Afrocentric” view of history.
The company did not respond to a request for comment by the Telegraph.
The movie, which does not yet have a title, will be directed by Washington’s long-term collaborator Antoine Fuqua.
It will be written by John Logan, who was behind another sword and sandals epic: Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.
Hayet Ketat Guermazi, Tunisia’s culture minister, defended the project, saying she welcomed the attention it would bring to the country.
The most important thing was that Netflix shot some of the film in Tunisia, she said.
The country has provided the backdrop to blockbusters from the Star Wars films to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Debates about ethnicity in Tunisia have become particularly charged since the president, Kais Saied, made xenophobic remarks earlier this year about sub-Saharan African migrants living in the country.
He accused them of wanting to change the demographic makeup of Tunisia.
The comments, which were criticised by the African Union as “racialised language”, prompted several attacks on migrants in Tunisian towns and cities and sparked an exodus, with thousands trying to sail across the Mediterranean towards Italy.
The controversy surrounding Washington’s casting comes just months after there was anger in fellow north African nation, Egypt, over the decision to have Adele James, a mixed-race British actress, play Cleopatra in a Netflix docudrama.
The government of Egypt released a statement in which it said that coins and artefacts from the era showed that the ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom had a “light complexion” with “Hellenistic characteristics”.
James said she found the criticism upsetting and thought it was misjudged.
“There are plenty of versions of Cleopatra that already exist with fairer-skinned actresses. So why not have someone new play her that’s my skin tone?” she told the Radio Times.
In 2020, there were complaints of “whitewashing” when it was announced that Gal Gadot, an Israeli-born actress, had been cast to play Cleopatra in another version of the film.
Critics said the role should go to an Arab or African actress.
Gadot rejected the comments, saying: “First of all, if you want to be true to the facts, then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra.”
The film’s producers could not find one, she said.