Controversies about race and casting dominated movie news throughout the later half of 2015, and thus far 2016 looks to be no different. Audiences were up in arms about Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton playing an Ancient Hebrew and an Egyptian in Exodus: Gods & Kings, while outcry over the whitewashing of Gods of Egypt was so overwhelming, it elicited an apology from the filmmakers. More recently, disappointment with the Academy Awards overlooking popular films and performances by black filmmakers led to the #OscarsSoWhite protest, which got so intense that The Academy enacted major reforms to their membership and voting rules.
But the latest such controversy has added an extra layer of outright strangeness to the ongoing debate, as actor Joseph Fiennes has reportedly been chosen to play Michael Jackson in an upcoming UK Television special.
The casting of a white British actor to portray one of the most famous black American musicians in history has been met with outrage and puzzlement by fans worldwide. It’s speculated that the maker of the half-hour special (which is intended as a comedy) may have chosen a white actor in order to match the iconic pop star’s unusual appearance in the period the events take place. Jackson underwent extensive cosmetic surgeries throughout much of his adult life, along with a progressive lightening of his skin which he attributed to a corrective action against a rare skin disorder. Responding to the controversy to ET, Fiennes (who called himself “as shocked as you”) stated:
“[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.”
Titled Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, the half-hour special is a comic-dramatization of a series of events that allegedly took place involving Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. As recounted in an account published in Vanity Fair Magazine, Jackson had flown Taylor and Brando to New York several nights before to attend his Madison Square Garden concert, only to become panicked that all three were in mortal danger when word of the attacks on the World Trade Center reached him. According to some, Jackson organized a hasty effort to get himself and his colleagues out of the city and back to the West Coast. Unable to fly because of the national grounding of almost all commercial flights, the three are said to have instead opted to rent a car intending to drive cross-country back to Los Angeles.
The trio supposedly only made it as far as Ohio before finally securing air travel and flying the remainder of the way home. Several sources have disputed that some or all of the events actually took place, including friends of Elizabeth Taylor who claim she was never actually in the car to begin with. Taylor is being played in the film by Stockard Channing, while Brian Cox has been cast as Marlon Brando. While anything else about the special is bound to be overshadowed by controversy over the bizarre casting of its lead character, Fiennes was quick to offer WENN that:
“It’s a lovely thing about Michael’s relationship with Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando. It’s a fun, light-hearted tongue-in-cheek road trip of what celebrity of that kind is like. But also it’s rather beautiful and poignant about their relationships as well.”
Regardless of whatever the special is meant to be about, objections to the casting are likely to continue being the focal point of attention to the production, as more and more fans discover that it exists. Though announced over a month ago as future project for the Sky Arts channel, the story has only recently been picked up by the mainstream entertainment press — leading to the current outpouring of confusion and outrage.
Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon does not yet have an airdate.