On Feb. 10, 1993, clad in a dazzling red shirt, black epaulets and a black armband, Michael Jackson walked across one of the many rooms of his Neverland Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. Striding past what appeared to be an enormous portrait of himself in Elizabethan garb, Jackson was there to meet a guest — Oprah Winfrey — and unburden himself. Even before allegations surfaced claiming the star had sexually abused children — as they did later that year — it seemed there were a lot of stories circulating about the King of Pop. And, live on national television before an audience of 90 million people, the King of Pop wanted to set the record straight.
Did he sleep in an oxygen chamber? No, Jackson said. Had he purchased the Elephant Man’s bones? No, Jackson said. (“Where am I going to put some bones?”) And did he want a white kid to play him in a Pepsi commercial?
Jackson sighed. Then he got mad. Or, perhaps, as mad as Michael Jackson got.
“That is so stupid,” he told Oprah. “That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy.”
The question, it seemed, struck at the core of Jackson’s amorphous identity. Though stricken with vitiligo, a skin condition that lightened his complexion in patches, the singer who idolized James Brown was still black and proud.
“Why?” he said of the rumor. “No. 1: It’s my face as a child in the commercial. Me when I was little. Why would I want a white child to play me? 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. I have a lot of pride in who I am and dignity. That’s like you wanting an Oriental person to play you as a child. Does that make sense? … So please people stop believing these horrifying stories.” He added: “When people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me.”
Now, a version of what so horrified Jackson — who, if anyone needs to be reminded, died in 2009 — has come to pass. The very white actor Joseph Fiennes, perhaps best known for playing the Bard in “Shakespeare in Love,” has been cast as Jackson in a 30-minute comedy for British television.
People were angry.
Just two weeks ago, Academy Award nominations were announced — and, out of 20 acting nominees, not a single person of color was to be found. This revived the previous year’s “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy about whether minorities remain underrepresented in the film industry. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, are sitting out the awards. Oscar host Chris Rock is now in the middle of the racial storm surrounding the glitzy event. The academy, its president said, is trying to diversify its membership. And what seemed like a whimsical project produced on a foreign isle — “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” which details the purported flight of Liz Taylor, Marlon Brando and Jackson from New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — hit social media with a digital thud.
“Joseph Fiennes is not surprised he was cast to play Michael Jackson,” one Twitter user wrote. ” I threw up in my mouth! #diversity.”
“I mean, at this rate, why not cast Judi Dench as Michael Jackson?” Ed Wong of the Atlantic tweeted.
“Producers say it’s creative diversity,” actor Miguel Nunez wrote. “Then let me Play Donald Trump.”
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) January 27, 2016
As the world defended the legacy of the man who may be the most beloved performer in history, Fiennes took refuge at “Entertainment Tonight.” And he wanted to talk about Jackson’s diagnosis.
Jackson “definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe,” he said. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color.”
The comedy, Fiennes said, was not a broadside against people of color trying to break into Hollywood. He said the film is “not in any way malicious. It’s actually endearing.”
Sky Arts, which is producing the one-off show, also defended the casting decision.
“Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set,” the network said in a statement, as the Associated Press reported. The company added that it “puts the integrity of the creative vision at the heart of all its original commissions.”
“It’s [about] people who are so iconic, but also can be detached,” Fiennes said. “You know, you can get detached from society. So it’s examining that kind of wonderful and mad detachment.”
Alas, some seemed more inclined to believe that the actor and Sky Arts were the detached ones.
@NYDailyNews I guess Brad Pitt will be cast as MLK in a reboot about his life and death.
— AJ (@AJ18018) January 27, 2016
But wait — “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” had its defenders. There is a long history of actors of one race playing characters of another and getting away with it — even after the end of Al Jolson-style blackface. There’s Al Pacino in “Scarface.” There’s Robert Downey in “Tropic Thunder” (though, actually, he was in blackface for that one). There’s “Hamilton.”
Aren’t artists free to make art?
“Well I mean, if we are allowed to turn ghostbusters into women, which were MEN first, race shouldn’t be a problem,” one Twitter user wrote.
“Looks pretty white to me,” the same Twitter user wrote over a photograph of Jackson.
Alas, an intractable problem that’s bedeviled theater for centuries has not been solved yet.
“In ‘Selma,’ for example, it makes no sense for a non-black actor to play Martin Luther King Jr. or for a non-white actor to play Lyndon Johnson.” David Marcus wrote at the Federalist last year in “The Case for Colorblind Casting.” “Those racial identities are central to the story, and there is nothing wrong with that. When a film or play is specifically exploring issues of race, it is perfectly acceptable to cast on that basis, just as it is when advertisers are targeting a demographic. This is natural and to be expected. But the fact is such stories are very much the exception, not the rule.”
Elsewhere, others took, more or less, the opposite position.
“Colorblind casting might land a few promising actors prestigious roles, but it isn’t a sustainable strategy,” Angelica Jade Bastien wrote at the Atlantic last year in “The Case Against Colorblind Casting.” “It neither addresses the systemic problems that exists behind the camera nor does it compel Hollywood to tell more racially aware stories.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article referred to “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” as a “TV movie.” It is a “one-off, 30 minute TV comedy,” according to producers, who contacted The Washington Post by email.