In these increasingly politically aware days, it’s rare to find a pop culture project that seems explicitly designed to be fed into the buzz-saw of Internet commentary. But rare doesn’t mean never. And last week, Sky Arts, a relatively obscure TV channel, increased its profile by orders of magnitude when it announced that Joseph Fiennes, who is white, will play Michael Jackson, who was not, in an upcoming movie about Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in the period after September 11.
The project doesn’t merely step into a long-simmering controversy about the persistence of cross-racial casting in Hollywood, a practice that has not only fueled stereotypes but also denied work to actors of color. It also seems like a specific affront to Jackson’s own wishes: Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in a 1993 interview that he never wanted to be played by a white actor.
And while I think it’s worthy and important to debate casting practices and the extent to which artists have license in how they depict the living and the dead, the way the debate over this project has proceeded has locked Jackson and his relationship to his own skin into a narrow black-white binary. And as Steve Knopper’s excellent recent book, “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson,” suggests, that relationship was a great deal more complicated than any implication that Jackson wanted to be white.
Jackson’s relationship to his skin was complicated from a young age, Knopper reports: The Jackson brothers teased each other mercilessly about their appearances. Michael’s nose was the source of his early nickname, as Jermaine’s acne was for him. The Jacksons had been subject to intense media scrutiny starting when they were very young and that meant Michael had to go through puberty in the public eye, a process that included media scrutiny of his blemishes. Nancy Leiviska, who worked with MTV, set Jermaine and Michael up with a dermatologist, and both Jacksons became vegetarians in an effort to fight acne through their diets. Michael would later have procedures to try to limit the appearance of his acne scars.
Michael Jackson’s vexed relationship to his skin wasn’t only cosmetic, and it wasn’t only a response to media pressure. In 1983, Arnold Klein, his dermatologist, observed not only that Jackson had vitiligo, the condition that would lead Jackson to bleach his skin, but also diagnosed Jackson with discoid lupus erythematosus. Later, Richard Strick, another dermatologist, “could see the disease had destroyed nose cartilage, which might have explained some of Michael’s plastic surgery.”
That latter condition was one source of physical pain for Jackson; the next year would bring another. While filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984, Jackson was badly burned during the sixth take of the ad. He had to have skin grafts and balloons implanted in his scalp as part of his recovery. In an attempt to ease his ongoing discomfort, a plastic surgeon tried to eliminate some of Jackson’s scar tissue.
“For this procedure, as well as Michael’s continuing struggles with discoid lupus and acne scarring— plus his continuing experiments with his nose, chin, and cheekbones— Klein and Debbie Rowe administered pain medication,” Knopper writes. “They were careful not to give too much, Rowe recalls. For early injections of the protein collagen, used for ‘filling’ of his acne scars, they offered no painkillers at first. Later, they expanded to a relatively small 100 milligrams of Demerol.”
None of this is to say that Jackson’s relationship to his own skin wasn’t also about race. Knopper examines Jackson’s reaction to his father Joe’s declaration that he needed “white help” to ease his negotiations with CBS after the Jackson 5 left Motown. “I happen to be color-blind. I don’t hire color; I hire competence,” Michael Jackson said in a public response. “The individual can be of any race or creed as long as I get the best.”
And Knopper surveys the contemporary cultural analysis of Jackson’s shifting skin color:
“It was very strange.” Greg Tate of the Village Voice declared in a 1987 essay: “Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war— another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.” Some MJ observers have suggested his vitiligo, while painful, gave him an excuse to mess around more than ever with racial boundaries. “We might say that his disease has liberated him from being bound to a black physicality,” critic Michael Awkward wrote. Just as he refused to limit himself to one producer or one musical style, he didn’t want to be limited to one look imposed by genetics or tradition. He belonged to everybody.
But if Jackson’s skin raises questions about the mutability of racial appearance and the persistence of racial identity — “I’m a black American, I’m proud to be a black American, I am proud of my race, I am proud of who I am,” Jackson told Winfrey in that 1993 interview — it’s a subject that’s also deeply intertwined with issues of pain and the practice of medicine. Understanding Michael Jackson’s skin and what it was like for him to live in it isn’t simply a matter of picking a skin color and an actor to match.