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Opinion: Michael Jackson, Joseph Fiennes, and Casting Color

Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor go on a long-rumored road trip in an upcoming British film. But there's a punchline.
Image:Joseph Fiennes and Michael Jackson
British Actor Joseph Fiennes and Pop star Michael Jackson. Fiennes is set to play the late singer Michael Jackson in "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon," a one-off, half-hour comedy.STRINGER / KLEIN / Reuters

Picture this.

Three cultural icons go on a road trip—Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor. A British film company is going to make a movie about the trip. And here is the punch line— the British "Shakespeare in Love" actor Joseph Fiennes has been cast as Michael Jackson.

Say what?

The film, “Elizabeth, Marlon and Michael” is based on a long-rumored road trip the three took. Last year, acclaimed British novelist, Zadie Smith did a retelling in her short story , Escape from New York that appeared in the 2016 New Yorker Summer Fiction issue. In the story, Jackson, Brando, and Taylor get stuck with canceled flights right after 9/11 and decide to drive back to Los Angeles in a Toyota Camry. Take a moment and savor that thought.

Image: Actor Joseph Fiennes
Actor Joseph Fiennes arrives for the world premier of Miramax's film "The Great Raid" at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2005.STRINGER / Reuters

As a person who loves the work and quirk of all three, it would be great fun watching this play out on film. However once Fiennes was cast, even Vanity Fair magazine, notorious for its lack of diversity and inclusion, asked if the unfortunate casting and the race issue take all the fun out of this film. It does for me.

Social media, both Facebook and Twitter are on fire with what they see as the absurdity of it all. When the story first broke, many thought it was one of those good old gotcha stories that The Onion would produce, or one heck of a SNL skit. Remember that cast member Fred Armisen played President Obama, until he left the show. And let us not forget the Wayans brothers’ White Chicks.

January has been a racially exhausting month for the arts, pop culture and geeks like me who follow them closely. There is a children’s book about George Washington’s happy little slaves making his birthday cake, written by two women of color. (Okay, what were they thinking?) Then there is the ongoing saga of the Oscars® White Out, the calls for boycotts and the rants that have Hollywood choosing sides. Video screaming matches and airing of dirty laundry ensued. And this is probably the cherry on top. "He portrays Michael Jackson in the film 'Elizabeth, Marlon and Michael'" is going to end up as a Jeopardy question.

Answer: "Who is nobody black for the Daily Double, Alex?"

The movie’s producers have said that “yes, it is an unconventional casting choice,” but they don’t understand why people are so up in arms, especially given the fact that Fiennes is a top notch actor. I think he is probably a closer physical match to Prince than Michael Jackson, but true, Fiennes' skin color is pretty close to Jackson’s at the time this story takes place. It speaks loud and clear to the film industry’s lack of understanding of culture and race and its significance. Somewhere, everywhere I hear voices saying, “we can’t have anything.”

Image: File photo of Michael Jackson in Santa Maria
Pop star Michael Jackson in Santa Maria, California, on June 13, 2005.PHIL KLEIN / Reuters

Who do white producers talk to when they are trying to decide if a potentially racially-charged idea is a good one? Do they even know that it is racially charged? Do they know any black folks? I can’t think there are too many black people besides Stacey Dash who would say, “Why yes, it makes total sense to cast a white, British actor to portray arguably the biggest entertainer icon of all time.”

Fans have called for a boycott of the movie when it comes out at the end of the year. We exert a lot of creative calories in boycotting things that don’t matter in the scheme of things. How about just saying “that’s dumb,” and not watching it. Movies die on the vine every day because nobody pays their money or tunes in to see them.

These discussions are distractions; I killed a couple of hours yesterday being all salty about this. I even took the step of creating alternate white casting, since in this new reality anybody and everybody can play anybody (unless you are Idris Alba, then you can’t play James Bond because you are black). Jim Carrey, Pee Wee Herman, Regis Philbin, Jack Black, Kevin Spacey, Channing Tatum, Adam Levine, Justin Bieber, David Spade, Adam Sandler could have been options.

Social media has speculated about what Michael Jackson would think about this casting. We do know that in an interview with Oprah Winfrey back in 1993 he addresses it, when asked about the rumors that he wanted a white actor to play him in an early 90’s Pepsi commercial, he responded “that is so stupid. That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy.”

Image: Taylor and Jackson
Actress Elizabeth Taylor with singer and performer Michael Jackson hold on one of two awards he won at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 25, 1993.VINCE BUCCI / AFP - Getty Images

But we also know that MJ would go there for the sake of his art. Jackson was arguably one of the most innovative visual artists ever. Take Ghosts, the little known 40-minute short movie he produced with Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King, and Stan Winston, the makeup and special effects genius). He played all the major parts including a character known as the Mayor, who is white—and kind of looks like Brando. If you watch the Making of Ghosts, you see that as an artist, he was willing to push all kinds of boundaries to tell a magical story.

I don’t need to see this movie to savor the mind-blowing talents of the King of Pop.