As the entertainment industry continues to grapple with the backlash over a second year of all-white nominations at the Academy Awards, a new casting announcement has provoked fresh criticism about the lack of diversity on screen and preference for white actors even when telling the story of people of colour.
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Joseph Fiennes will play African-American pop star and icon Michael Jackson in an upcoming half-hour show by Sky Arts called Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, which tells the story of a reported trip the star took with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on New York.
The show is to be a half-hour comedy, according to the network, not a film as was reported by some media outlets, and will screen later in 2016. It tells a story first reported by Vanity Fair in 2011, about how when the Twin Towers came down, Jackson, Brando and Taylor fled New York city by car and ended up taking a long road trip together.
But the announcement this week that Jackson would be played by Fiennes, a white actor most famous for playing William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, clearly stuck a nerve at a time when public anger about the lack of diversity in Hollywood was already running high.
Most critics have acknowledged that casting actors to play Jackson has always been a somewhat vexed question because of the way his appearance dramatically changed throughout his career. The pop singer suffered from vitiligo, as confirmed by the case report following his death, and his skin colour lightened over his adult life. He reportedly also underwent more than one rhinoplasty surgery which altered the shape of his nose.
"You don't cast a white actor to play Michael Jackson - you get a black guy to play him, because MJ was black even when he was 'white'," wrote Aisha Harris at Slate.
"Just because our relationship and understanding of him evolved as his persona became more feminine and his skin tone more pale, that doesn't mean he was a fundamentally different person - he was still the same guy who donned a wildly amazing 'fro on the cover of Off the Wall, the same dynamic superstar who had to fight to get his music videos played on MTV in the early '80s because they were reluctant to play black artists at the time."
I’m fine with Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson as long as Viola Davis plays Marlon Brando.— Sam Adams (@SamuelAAdams) January 27, 2016
There is a long history of white actors playing people of colour on screen, from crude blackface depictions of African-Americans to the recent Biblical epic Exodus, which starred Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Ancient Egyptians, or Emma Stone being cast as a a woman of mixed Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian background in Aloha.
Stereo Williams, an entertainment writer for the Daily Beast, pointed out the casting announcement came not only as the industry grappled with the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, but also followed a landmark speech in the UK by British actor Idris Elba about the lack of opportunities for black artists on screen.
"There is both a casual ambivalence and quiet hostility towards broadening the range of opportunities for non-white stars to truly thrive in the mainstream," wrote Williams, "and things like casting a white man to play Michael Jackson only serve as further proof that there are filmmakers who are deeply determined to tune out the cultural conversation."
Too crazy for words! #JosephFiennes playing Michael Jackson! What next? Tom Cruise playing Muhammad Ali? Uma Thurman playing Rosa Parks?— Duncan Whitehead (@DuncanWhitehead) January 27, 2016
A spokeswoman for Sky did not respond to questions from Fairfax Media about the casting decision but said in a statement:
"[The show] is part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history. Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set."
Fiennes confirmed the casting in an interview with WENN, in which he said the script was a "challenge".
"It's a lovely thing about Michael's relationship with Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando. It's a fun, light-hearted tongue in cheek road trip of what celebrity of that kind is like. But also it's rather beautiful and poignant about their relationships as well," he said.
The roles of Taylor and Brando will be played by Stockard Channing and Brian Cox.
Joseph Fiennes can play Michael Jackson. (A real person). But Idris can't play James Bond (a fake spy for a fake agency)? Cool, cool, cool.— Prentice Penny (@The_A_Prentice) January 27, 2016