The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending around this time last year, after the Academy Award nominations were announced and its list of 20 acting nominees didn’t include a single person of color. So the fire was already burning when news broke that Joseph Fiennes, a white man who was once cast as William Shakespeare, would portray Michael Jackson in a 30-minute British comedy from a series called “Urban Myths.”
His episode explores a fictional account of a road trip between Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, based on a disputed report published in Vanity Fair in 2011, that the three drove out of New York City together after the 9/11 attacks.
Even though no one had seen so much as a still from the production, fury erupted.
Now, a year later, the show’s network, Sky Arts, has dropped a trailer showing the very white Fiennes portraying the late black singer, igniting that outrage all over again.
The trailer shows Fiennes as Jackson three times amid several interspersed shots of other celebrities such as Samuel Beckett, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan and even Adolf Hitler — all played by actors who share their same skin colors.
Among the expected angry notes on Twitter were two messages from Jackson’s family members.
His daughter, Paris Jackson, tweeted that she was so offended, the portrayal “honestly makes me want to vomit.”
“It angers me to see how obviously intentional it was for them to be this insulting,” she tweeted in a follow-up.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s nephew Taj Jackson tweeted, “Unfortunately this is what my family has to deal with. No words could express the blatant disrespect.”
While there is a long-standing and much maligned history of white actors portraying people of color, the situation is even more complicated in Jackson’s case — his skin did lighten over the course of his life, but not by his own choice.
As The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer wrote when the controversy first reared its head, “Though stricken with vitiligo, a skin condition that lightened his complexion in patches, the singer who idolized James Brown was still black and proud.”
When speaking to Oprah about a rumor that he wanted a white child to portray him in a Pepsi commercial, Jackson responded in no uncertain terms: “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. … So please people stop believing these horrifying stories. . . . When people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me.”
Fiennes immediately responded to the outrage last year in a few interviews. On “Entertainment Tonight,” he said, “Jackson definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe. He was probably closer to my color than his original color.”
He added more context in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s Michael in his last days when, I have to say, he did look quite frankly rather differently than when we grew up with him in the ’80s or earlier. So it’s as Michael as we last remembered him and how he looks. The decision with the casting and the producers — I wrangled with it, I was confused and shocked at what might come my way, and I knew the sensitivity, especially to Michael’s fans and to Michael’s family. It doesn’t negate who he was.”
Furthermore, Fiennes went on to defend colorblind casting, or casting actors in roles without paying heed to skin color. Fiennes said:
. . . when I went to drama school and went through my career in theater, I’ve known nothing but colorblind casting. I think it’s essential, otherwise we wouldn’t get amazing actors to play Hamlet and even changing sex as well. It’s important because all actors bring something fresh and new. We’re looking for imagination and interpretation, and it doesn’t steal anything away from the true identity of that person. It might offer something new and fresh and funny; as long as it doesn’t become disenfranchising, racial or rude or stereotypical, then it’s the wrong place. But if it’s offering something else that’s positive in discussion, we have to entertain colorblind casting at all levels.
Of course, his explanations didn’t stop people from feeling angry.
The series will debut in the United Kingdom on Jan. 19, with no set air date in the United States.
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