ANATOMY OF A DEBACLE
Joseph Fiennes’s Whitewashed Michael Jackson TV Show: What the Hell Was This?
An episode of ‘Urban Myths,’ starring Joseph Fiennes as a white Michael Jackson, has been canceled in a blaze of scandal. But what the hell was it, and who thought it was a good idea?
The horrifying legacy-bastardizing of Michael Jackson—in which (white) British actor Joseph Fiennes plays the late legend in whiteface makeup, resembling an artist’s rendition of Slenderman crafted out of Play-Doh—is no more.
After two waves of controversy, a flicker when the casting was announced and a full-on blazing inferno when the first trailer featuring Fiennes in character released this week, British broadcaster Sky has pulled the episode from scheduled airing.
Still, the whole endeavor begs a very important question: Why?
Or, maybe: What the hell?
Why in the world did this project exist? What was Sky thinking with the casting? And why, after going through the trouble of shooting the whole thing and then cutting it into a trailer, would they only now decide to pull the plug?
First, it helps to know what the TV show is. Urban Myths, which airs on Sky Arts in the U.K., is a cheeky (British word!) and, clearly, sometimes controversial comedy series that dramatizes wild stories about celebrities that have become showbiz legend, with the industry’s favorite shrug: this might have happened or it might have not, but we’re playing it as fact anyway.
There were eight episodes planned (now presumably seven of this high art). The premiere for example, was set to focus on a yarn involving Eurythmics star Dave Stewart and needs-no-intro Bob Dylan.
As the story goes, Stewart gave Dylan a standing invitation to visit his north London studio whenever he pleased. One day a cab dropped off Dylan at a building across from the studio. When Dylan knocked on the door and asked for Dave, it just so happened the owner of the house was also named Dave, but was out at the time.
Not-famous-Dave’s wife invited Dylan in for a cup of coffee. When her husband returned, he asked if there were any messages and she replied, “No, but Bob Dylan’s in the living room having coffee.”
Other episodes in the series will feature Game of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon as Adolf Hitler attempting to get into art school, with Harry Potter star Rupert Grint playing his friend; Ben Chaplin’s Cary Grant taking LSD with Aidan Gillen’s Dr. Timothy Leary; and one in which Salvador Dali apparently meets with Alice Cooper.
While the show didn’t invent these stories, per se, suffice it to say it is epically trolling stuff. (Judging by our reaction to the trailer, we seem to have responded in kind.)
The Michael Jackson episode in question centered around a ridiculous and gloriously entertaining story, first alleged in Vanity Fair, about a too-good-to-be-true road trip the King of Pop took with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, of all people, to flee New York City in a state of paranoia after 9/11.
Stockard Channing plays Taylor and Brian Cox plays Brando in the episode which, based on the seconds-long footage of Fiennes’ Jackson flitting through the woods like some sort of enchanted boogeyman, might not have been the most respectful depiction of the tragic superstar.
(Carrie Fisher will also be reportedly in the episode, as a burger flipper at a diner.)
The network, series director Ben Palmer, and Fiennes have had to answer for the controversial whitewashed casting pretty much from the moment it was announced.
All parties initially defended the move, citing skin tone and not race in claiming that by 2001, as Fiennes said last year, “he was probably closer to my color than his original color.”
Palmer was more blunt about it: “We were casting Michael Jackson in 2001 and that obviously is a challenge in terms of the physical resemblance.”
It’s a precarious and, as we’ve seen, incendiary situation. Michael Jackson, as we all know, was black. Over the course of his career his skin tone became noticeably lighter than it was in his youth, until it was a tone that most people would identify with a white person.
In theory, that would make Fiennes’s casting plausible. Except for the fact that it was a glaring example of whitewashing, of hiring a white actor to play a black American. There was the prevailing notion that it would have been more just and dignified to cast a black actor with a lighter skin tone, perhaps with added makeup to make the likeness more in line with Jackson’s 2001 complexion.
After all, they certainly used some conflagration of janky makeup and prosthetics to achieve that Fiennes look from your nightmares we saw in the trailer.
And this is all not to mention that Jackson himself had previously told Oprah Winfrey an interview that set viewership records in 1993—90 million people around the world reportedly tuned in—that he would be horrified at the idea of a white person portraying him on screen.
“I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American,” he said. “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.”
Dignity, it should be clear, is what this Urban Myths episode was robbing the late entertainer of, and is the purest source of this entire debacle.
Of course, it was one thing to discuss Fiennes’s casting in theory. It was another to see the actual image of it in this week’s trailer.
That’s when Jackson’s family finally spoke out in dismay.
Jackson’s daughter, Paris, tweeted that she was “incredibly offended” by the project, saying that her godmother, Liz Taylor, would be dismayed about it as well. “It honestly makes me want to vomit,” she wrote. “It angers me to see how obviously intentional it was for them to be this insulting, not just towards my father but my godmother Liz as well.”
Jackson’s nephew, Taj, also spoke out against it.
While it’s clear that the Urban Myths episode was also meant to bait our reactionary instincts by stoking controversy to generate buzz for the project, the sheer volume of negative energy directed at the broadcaster and the series—and the fact that it so personally hurt Jackson’s family—led to the cancellation of the episode.
“We have taken the decision not to broadcast ‘Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,’ a half-hour episode from the Sky Arts Urban Myths series, in light of the concerns expressed by Michael Jackson’s immediate family,” a company spokeswoman said. “We set out to take a light-hearted look at reportedly true events and never intended to cause any offence. Joseph Fiennes fully supports our decision.”
In the end, the endeavor represented the collision of the entertainment industry’s worst instincts and our latent hypocrisy as consumers.
Old adages are supposed to be just that, old. Yet “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a maxim that has never been more current. Frustrated over the fruitless endeavor of trying to make noise over the din of entertainment options, the new strategy has instead been to stoop low.
Court controversy. Push the line of offense. Make people angry. Be “unapologetic,” a word that once was empowering but it is quickly becoming an excuse for impolite behavior. Passion generates headlines, even if they’re written out of ire. And headlines get you noticed.
Urban Myths isn’t the first series to operate like this. It’s the first to make the simultaneous mistake of whitewashing, an exasperating epidemic in Hollywood that continues to manifest despite the fact that, by now, the industry knows better. It just doesn’t care to do anything about it.
And us? We love our hashtag outrage. It gets us likes and retweets and, most importantly, self-satisfaction. But does tweeting, or signing petitions, or pledging boycotts actually change industry norms?
Not when, as quickly we’ll lay out our disgust in 140 characters or less, we’ll tune in for the controversial thing anyway. Maybe to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe to livetweet the ordeal because, we realize, that will get us more attention than the outrage did anyway.
Because, let’s face it: that episode is going to find its way to us somehow. And we’re going to watch it. And share it. And write about it. And decry it. But, most of all, we’re going to give it attention…just as was always intended.