Commentary: White actor cast as Michael Jackson

Serina Gousby

People around the world were shocked to hear a few weeks ago that white actor Joseph Fiennes was cast as the late music legend Michael Jackson in an upcoming British television movie for Sky Arts. The comedic plot portrays Jackson and late actors Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor cruising on a road trip from New York to Ohio shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only is the casting choice weird and utterly disrespectful, but to include 9/11 in a comedy has to be the most insensitive and heartless thing Sky Arts could do.

According to The Washington Post, the alleged road trip was first recounted in a 2011 Vanity Fair article detailing three alleged versions of the story. You read that right, three versions and unfortunately all three stars are not alive to tell it. The version that is used for the film is from one of Jackson’s former employees. They claimed that before the three stars drove through states and stopped by fast food restaurants, Jackson brought his entourage to a safe haven in New Jersey. I didn’t know Jackson personally, but leaving his entourage and his children behind sounds very strange and far from accurate.

One of Taylor’s former assistants told Vanity Fair that Taylor actually stayed in New York, attended church, and met with first responders. Stacy Brown, a writer from the New York Post who was also a friend of the Jackson family, claimed he assisted the King of Pop’s family by issuing RVs to escort Jackson’s brothers and mother out of the state. Brown also revealed that Jackson checked on Brando and Taylor after the attacks, then left the city two days later on his tour bus with his two children Prince and Paris, security guards and three other companions. The rest of Brown’s story sounds pretty accurate, as Jackson’s acts of humanitarianism and caring personality are well-known.

After receiving slews of backlash, Fiennes told Entertainment Tonight that the movie is not  “malicious,” but “endearing.” He acknowledged Jackson’s pigmentation disease, vitiligo, by saying “He was probably closer to my color than his own original color.” Although that may be true, that gives no justifiable reason to completely whitewash the image of a black superstar.

There is good chance Jackson is rolling in his grave, especially since he once addressed a similar issue about a young white child portraying his younger self in a Pepsi commercial. In an interview with Oprah in 1993, Jackson professed his utmost pride and dignity of being a black performer and that in no way would he want to be any other race. The legendary pop star has always been a true advocate for issues pertaining to black culture, including his political song, “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” The idea of a white man playing a proud and socially-conscious black man like Jackson in any film, domestically or internationally, makes me cringe.

Numerous public figures have expressed their anger and discomfort with the casting choice, including Jackson’s oldest son, Prince. A woman on Twitter asked Prince if he was going to see the upcoming movie, and he responded, “No it is an appalling idea to my family and I.” Actress Angela Bassett reacted to the news by joking that she would play Elizabeth Taylor in the film. If Jackson is going to be portrayed as a white male, why not portray Taylor as a black woman?

The film industry has had a substantial record of casting white actors to play people of color, which outright robs black, Asian and Hispanic actors of opportunities to accurately depict characters.

For a man who grappled with illness and slander from the media toward the end of his life, Jackson deserves to be portrayed by a black man with a light complexion who can righteously depict his humility, childlike personality and beautiful spirit.