White actor playing Michael Jackson makes singer’s daughter ‘want to vomit’

Paris Jackson says Joseph Fiennes’ TV portrayal of the black singer is ‘offensive’

Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson in a new Sky Arts show, Urban Myths

Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson in a new Sky Arts show, Urban Myths

 

Picture the scene. A casting meeting in an office somewhere in Greater London for Urban Myths, a Sky Arts satirical comedy series about things that might never have happened to celebrities.

The producers are brainstorming someone to play Michael Jackson, in the dramatisation of a 2001 road trip he might or might not have taken with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. (Taylor’s former PA made the claim about the road trip in a Vanity Fair article, but it was later denied by another of her aides).

Will Smith, too expensive. John Legend, ditto. David Oyelowo, too serious. The English actor and director Noel Clarke might work, but they’ve already signed him up to play Mohammed Ali.

Then one of them comes up with a daft idea. “What about Joseph Fiennes?”

The rest of the production team fall about in hysterical laughter, while somebody kindly explains that when they say there are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session, they don’t literally mean no bad ideas.

At least, that’s what should have happened. Instead, somehow, a suggestion so far off-the-wall that it was on another planet went on to become a reality.

This week, the trailer for Urban Myths was released, featuring the first glimpse of Fiennes as Jackson. With his face the colour and texture of margarine, he would – as someone on Twitter pointed out -- make a great Noel Fielding. Or a decent Wurzel Gummidge.

But Michael Jackson?

Even Fiennes has admitted he was “shocked” by the decision to cast him. But hey, he’s got a mortgage to pay.

Whatever you could say about Michael Jackson’s appearance in his later years – and it’s true his feature changed dramatically over the course of his life – he was never not a black American. He suffered from a pigmentation disorder, vitiligo, that he said caused his skin to lighten. Around the same time, his nose slimmed, he acquired a cleft in his chin, and his lips thinned. But Michael Jackson was not white: his race was not determined by the colour of his skin or the shape of his features.

In a 1993 interview, when asked by Oprah Winfrey about rumours that he had wanted a white child to play him a Pepsi commercial, Jackson made it clear what he thought of the idea. “That is so stupid. That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy,” he said.

“I’m a black American. 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.”

Look, the new series of Urban Myths isn’t Moonlight. It’s a made-for-TV spoof comedy series and, judging by the trailer – with the exception of the casting of Iwan Rheon, better known as Game of Thrones’ gleefully psychotic Ramsay Bolton, as Adolf Hitler – it is a fairly dire one. The episode to be shown on January 26th has Samuel Beckett driving Andre the Giant to school as a child. We’re not talking intellectually rigorous stuff here.

But in the context of the ongoing conversation over a lack of diversity on our screens, culminating during last year’s award season in the #OscarSoWhite hashtag on Twitter, it is distasteful at best. Figures released at that time revealed that 10 per cent of the Academy’s acting nominations since 2000 had gone to black actors; 3 per cent to Hispanic actors and one per cent to Asian-Americans.

This year’s Oscar nominations are due to be announced on January 24th, and observers are expecting more diversity as a result of a clutch of films, including Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and The Birth of a Nation.

But, with the inauguration of Donald Trump just days away, diversity and identity remain hot button issues – as evidenced by Meryl Streep’s recent, brilliant speech at the Golden Globes, in which she took a pop at Trump’s mocking of a reporter with a disability, and talked about the role immigrants have played in Hollywood.

In this environment, casting a white person to play a black American is more than a touch tone deaf. Jackson’s daughter, Paris, said yesterday on Twitter that she was “incredibly offended” by the photos of Fiennes as her late father. “It honestly makes me want to vomit,” she added.

The director Ben Palmer defended the casting decision to the Guardian newspaper, insisting that Fiennes gave a “sweet, nuanced, characterful” performance that succeeded in “unlocking the spirit” of Jackson.

He also succeeded in unlocking global headlines – but of course, that will have been nothing whatsoever to do with him getting the part.

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