Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson: A Symptom of Hollywood’s Deep-Seated Race Problem

Yes, Joseph Fiennes, the white younger brother of Ralph, is set to play the King of Pop in a 9/11 road trip comedy. We can—and should—do better.

Getty Images; Reuters

The casting of white British actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an upcoming U.K. film has left fans of the late King of Pop in a state of bewilderment and shock, with many airing their grievances on social media. Fiennes will co-star as Jackson in a movie titled Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon set to premiere later this year. The film is a comedic retelling of a fabled story involving the King of Pop, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando on a road trip from New York City to Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2001. Acclaimed actors Stockard Channing and Brian Cox as Taylor and Brando, respectively, are so pitch-perfectly cast that neither requires much if any further explanation. But Fiennes as Jackson is a whole different story altogether.

Fiennes spoke about the bizarre project and acknowledged that playing the megastar Jackson would be “a challenge.” The Shakespeare In Love actor also discussed the tone of this bizarre comedy based on a disputed Vanity Fair story about the trio of legends who, unable to secure a flight out of New York on the day of the 9/11 attacks, took their show on the road.

“I got the script the other day,” Fiennes explained to WENN. “It’s a challenge. It’s a comedy. It doesn’t poke mean fun but it’s a story, possibly urban legend, whereby Michael, Marlon Brando, and Liz Taylor were all together the day before 9/11 doing a concert. Airspace was shut down and they couldn’t get out and Michael had the bright idea to go to hire a car and drive.

“So the three of them got in a car and drove 500 miles to Los Angeles. It took them a while because they had to stop at a lot of Burger Kings for Marlon, but they got out!”

Fiennes didn’t say much, however, to address the 500-pound elephant (no, not Brando) in the room: Why was a white actor cast to play an African American entertainer? Even with Jackson’s specific physical attributes at that point in his life—he suffered from vitiligo, which causes the skin to lose its pigment—it’s not beyond reason to consider that there are qualified black actors out there that could convincingly portray Michael Jackson. One has to wonder if there is all that much consideration given to getting this “right” at all, especially when considering these industries’ inherent preference for white faces to sell.

Of course, this latest bit of questionable casting comes in the midst of a highly visible dialogue on race in mainstream cinema. The lack of diversity among this year’s Academy Award nominees has led to a revamp of the voting system and of the Academy itself, as well as a much larger conversation on opportunities in front of and behind the camera throughout the many tiers of Hollywood.

While Brits Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine shrugged off the #OscarsSoWhite campaign (Rampling even said it was “racist against whites”), U.K. star Idris Elba recently spoke to the Houses of Parliament regarding the lack of varied opportunities for non-white actors in British entertainment and how it affected him both as a black fan and as a black actor.

“Because I never saw myself on TV, I stopped watching TV,” he said. “Instead I decided to just go out and become TV.

“There wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead,” Elba said. “When you don’t reflect the real world, too much talent gets trashed. Thrown on the scrapheap. Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. And talent can’t reach opportunity.”

Elba also shared his belief that Hollywood was far ahead of the U.K. regarding opportunities for people of color.

“I went to America because I was running out of parts,” he said. “The USA has the most famous diversity policy of all: the American Dream. I want that British dream.”

If Hollywood is the standard-bearer for opportunity, then we should all be deeply concerned about the state of diversity in the film industry. That isn’t intended to be glib, but to convey the gravity of the problem; how deeply we must go to uproot and rectify it. There is both a casual ambivalence and quiet hostility towards broadening the range of opportunities for non-white stars to truly thrive in the mainstream, and things like casting a white man to play Michael Jackson only serve as further proof that there are filmmakers who are deeply determined to tune out the cultural conversation.

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British actor and Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam was announced as the lead in the upcoming American Drug Lord, the story of Mexican-American Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who went from Texas high school football star to brutal cartel leader known as “La Barbie.” Villareal’s nickname was attributed to the fact that he had blue eyes and a fair complexion, “like a Ken doll.”

“It seems not well thought-through to be upset over casting an excellent actor to act as a character with whom he seems to share many physical resemblances,” argued producer Vincent Newman. “I suppose those offended by this would have disqualified Al Pacino from acting as Tony Montana or James Caan as Sonny Corleone. It’s acting after all, and the merit of the choice will be assessed as it is with all casting choices, on the quality and believability of his performance.”

Pacino’s famously over-the-top faux Cubano Scarface shtick isn’t exactly the best performance to cite as far as white actors tackling “ethnic” characters, but when there is already evidence of clear racial bias in which actors are even considered for roles in the first place, it should be clear why casting Fiennes as the famously pale Jackson or Hunnam as La Barbie raises questions. How many actually black or Latino actors had the opportunity to land these roles? How many producers already know from the first reading of the script that they would prefer to cast white guys who look like non-white guys as opposed to proper black/Latino leads?

These are questions that recognize how racial biases in casting, green-lighting, and marketing films are as detrimental as flagrant racist contempt. And long after awards season has passed, we’ll be left to answer these questions if we are committed to addressing the disparities that lead to white guys deciding who and what goes on screen. Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson is a symptom of a deeper sickness that moviemakers are only now beginning to treat. This movie won’t be the final say on this subject, but as it happens, it adds fuel to a very necessary conversation. Here’s hoping major film studios in both America and Britain pay closer attention to that conversation and do more than pay lip service to those initiating it.

And here’s hoping we don’t get a Ralph Fiennes cameo as Jermaine.