Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson: Controversial Casting Adds Fuel to Hollywood’s Diversity Debate

Joseph Fiennes Michael Jackson Movie
Picture Perfect/REX/Shutterstock

With the entertainment industry currently embroiled in a debate over the lack of diversity in film, UK pay TV network Sky Arts may have picked the wrong time to announce that British actor Joseph Fiennes will play pop icon Michael Jackson in a new half-hour comedy special.

The project, “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” will center around an unlikely road trip that Jackson and friends Elizabeth Taylor (Stockard Channing) and Marlon Brando (Brian Cox) allegedly took from New York to Ohio in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

In a statement regarding Fiennes’ casting, Sky Arts said, “‘Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon’ is a Sky Arts comedy which takes a light-hearted look at a reportedly true event; Joseph Fiennes is cast as Michael Jackson. It is part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history. Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set.”

In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Fiennes addressed the incongruity of a white actor being asked to play an African American singer. “I’m a white, middle-class guy from London … I’m as shocked as you may be,” he said. “[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.”

While the project is designed as a comedy, and will be directed by Ben Palmer — a helmer known for his satirical projects across the pond including “The Inbetweeners,” “Star Stories” and “Bo’ Selecta” — Fiennes’ casting has struck a nerve in an already sensitive industry.

“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,” noted Stereo Williams at The Daily Beast.

Two weeks ago, another white actor, British thesp Charlie Hunnam, was cast as Mexican American drug kingpin Edgar Valdez Villarreal in Legendary’s “American Drug Lord,” a decision that producer Vincent Newman defended because Villarreal was known as “La Barbie,” thanks to his blond hair and light skin.

“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,” said Newman, per Fox News. “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.”

But plenty of industry figures have taken issue with Fiennes and Hunnam’s casting, with director Lexi Alexander noting on Twitter, “The fact that the Joseph Fiennes & Charlie Hunnam whitewashing announcements are made during #OscarsSoWhite campaign says a whole lot.”

Actor Orlando Jones chimed in, “I’m TOTALLY on board with Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson IF AND ONLY IF Angela Bassett is cast as Elizabeth Taylor.”

BET’s official Twitter account also drew attention to other notable examples of whitewashing in Hollywood.

And they weren’t alone.

“Charlie Hunnam can play Mexican-American Edgar Valdez & Joseph Fiennes can play Michael Jackosn, but Idris Elba can’t play Bond?” asked Twitter user @HashtagLaToya, referencing the recent controversy over 007 author Anthony Horowitz’s comments that Idris Elba was “too street” to play James Bond after current star Daniel Craig steps down from the franchise. Elba recently criticized the U.K. entertainment industry for its lack of diversity, citing the lack of opportunities for actors of color in Britain during a speech before Parliament.

“I realized I could only play so many ‘best friends’ or ‘gang leaders.’ I knew I wasn’t going to land a lead role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead,” he said, explaining his decision to relocate to the U.S. for work, where he was soon cast in HBO’s critically acclaimed drama “The Wire.”

In an interview with WENN, Fiennes didn’t address the incongruity of a white actor being asked to play an African American singer. “I got the script the other day … 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,” he explained. “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.”

What do you think of Fiennes being cast as Jackson? Share your thoughts below.

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  1. Katy Lee says:

    Has the King of Pop not taught you guys anything?!
    Michael Jackson (may god rest his soul), would be so disappointed if he read this article, not because of a black guy being portrayed by a white guy, but the very fact that this article exsists. MJ was all about love and fought hard to get people to see that racial differences or the color of your skin makes no difference to who you are as a being. If MJ was alive right now he would probably take Joseph Fiennes a side and say “You want to act as me? Come to Neverland and i’ll SHOW you how to be Michael Jackson!” Has was just that kinda guy.

  2. Pottering says:

    This is nothing compared to Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There! Funny how that fictionalisation featuring a woman playing a man didn’t seem controversial in the slightest.

  3. CH says:

    I don’t remember any controversy when Michael Palin cast Ricky Fataar to play George Harrison in “All You Need Is Cash” — commonly known as, “The Rutles”.

  4. NC says:

    They’ve completely lost their minds. Even putting the race/skin colour aside, Joseph Fiennes, as much as I love him, is so obviously and completely miscast for the role. He doesn’t “project” anything even remotely MJ-like. They should at least try to cast someone a bit more frail a la Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s type. This is just wrong.

    • NC says:

      …No, seriously, this is just so wrong. It doesn’t matter how white Michael Jackson’s skin looked, we still perceive him as black, and even if you can’t “whiten” with all the makeup a black actor to the exact same degree, a black actor will still be perceived more seriously in this role than any white guy (this is really not about MJ “probably being closer to my color than his original color”, sorry, Fiennes ). This is an iconic figure we are talking about. And even if it’s just a fun half an hour comedy, you don’t really wanna make it a complete joke.

  5. P.L. Miller says:

    Let’s get to the essence of this: it’s called, “painting down” and SAG prohibits it.

  6. Chan says:

    How ’bout that for diversity?! WOOOOW!

  7. Anita W says:

    The pure vitriol and ignorance espoused by whites demonstrates why lack of diversity is a real issue in Hollywood and beyond. A general lack of critical thinking skills among the typical “milquetoast racist” makes it impossible to have a reasonable discourse, so the accurate and cynical #OscarSoWhite is needed.

    Those who reduce this to a “Michael Jackson was white” need to watch They Don’t Care About Us. He WAS A BLACK MAN. His skin disease made his skin pale, but he was always BLACK.

    No, PoC are going to keep pushing your BS back in your face. No, we are not going to stay quiet. Yes, frigging deal with it bc wp days are numbered. Enjoy staying mad. I know I live for the taste of bitter white tears. Feel free to reply for your own amusement. I have spoken.

    • Jason says:

      Ok you can get mad all you want but it doesn’t change the fact that Joseph is playing MJ and it never will so cry all you want baby, hahaha. You just hate the fact that MJ didn’t want to be seen any race or gender that’s why he fucked himself up to the point he did.

  8. Rob Cochran says:

    Couldn’t they find a black man and put him in white face? Everybody knows white folks can’t dance so they cast a limey peckerwood, Only a black man can dance a jig like Michael…

  9. brent reynolds says:

    Those goes to all you pathetic hypocritical dumb assessment that do not understand the full meaning of Diversity. Until you understand the full meaning keep your ignorant uneducated comments to yourself. I also have one movie for all of you that are complaining about a different colored person portraying another colored person. Whit Girls. Remember that comedy? Ah yes no one complained about 2 black buys portraying 2 white guys and basically doing all yet can to stereotype white college girls. Funny. How everyone who is complaining about this laughed there ass off seeing g the reverse of what they are so angry. Pathetic.

  10. Justin Edinburgh says:

    Please give it up with that completely dumb hashtag. Do some basic research and you will find its completely wrong, their is an issue but its not the Oscars. Anyone using that hashtag is only advertising their lack of intelligence.

  11. Sanman$ says:

    It will be Al Jolson in black face singing Swanie River. What a joke,

  12. Sam says:

    Fiennes will rock this role. He will be great. The script sounds truly funny. I will be watching.

  13. Neil says:

    Can someone submit a list of Black actors with Michael Jackson’s complexion and racially ambiguous/cosmetically altered features and hair? I thought Fiennes was an odd choice, but I can’t think of one of the many talented black actors who could pull it off. No disrespect intended as his complexion was result of an unfortunate illness. Can’t speak to the transformation of his features to a European visage,

    • NC says:

      Pretty much any (for this particular little comedy), starting with Michael B. Jordan, for example, plus the use of makeup, since the precision is out of the window anyway…Joseph Fiennes – how? really?? look at that long face, nose, and close-set eyes!! At least a black actor can be perceived somewhat authentic if not identical.

  14. Michael anthony says:

    There are literally thousands of films and TV shows were casting was done against type or against the truth.

    Where were all you outraged people, including BET, when Hamilton was cast? Black actors are cast as historical figures who were definitely white. Not a peep from any of you then! Hypocrites!

    • Katie says:

      The reason why there wasn’t outrage is because it is difficult for people of color to get roles in show biz that isn’t “wacky ethnic sidekick” or “scary thug/gangster/terrorist”. Hollywood has a nasty, nasty habit of whitewashing roles. For an example in the article, Cleopatra was Egyptian, but she was played by a white woman. In the Avatar Last Airbender movie, the Water Tribe, clearly based off the Inuit in the TV show, were played by two white kids. Dragonball movie was based off a Japanese anime, and yet all the actors were white. In Aloha, the captain who was mixed race (Chinese and Hawaiian) was played by a very white Emma Stone– in fact, all the major roles were played by white people, even though only 25% of Hawaii’s population is white. The list continues: Jake Gyllenhaal (white) played the titular Middle Eastern royalty in Prince of Persia; Micky Rooney wearing yellowface as Mr Yunoshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Scarlett Johansson (white) is going to play Makoto Kusanagi (Japanese) in the upcoming Ghost In The Shell. I could go on and on.

      You see, the majority of people you get to see on television or on the movie screen are predominately white, and PoC actors have to claw tooth and nail to get non-stereotypical roles (Aziz Ansari has a lot to say about the topic, and he’s an established actor who still has to deal with this crap!). And so when there comes a movie or show that seems made with a role made for a PoC– like, oh, I don’t know, a comedy about Michael Jackson, the iconic, *black* King of Pop– it feels doubly wretched to cast a white person, like you’re stealing a chance from an already very limited pool.

      And so that was why no one really cared about casting non-white people as white people in Hamilton. White people haven’t had the history of having to get past a still-present barrier around roles based on race. Not to mention, Lin-Manuel Miranda specifically cast the musical to rewrite the Founding Fathers’ narrative to reflect the racial diversity of 21st century America, a nation built by immigrants. (And yes, as stated multiple times in the musical, Hamilton was an immigrant. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” quoth the musical.)

  15. Theros says:

    Jackie Chan should play Marlon Brando and Selma Hayek should play Elizabeth Taylor then. It is a comedy after all. Just ridiculous…

  16. Tim says:

    Michael went through great lengths to rid himself of his blackness. He wished that he was born White. He’d give his seal-of-approval to the casting of Fiennes.

  17. Michael says:

    The thing is that Jackson had very light skin so I can understand that they cast a white actor to portray him. If he was portrayed by an African American actor they would have to use a lot of make-up to make him this white.
    People say that even Fiennes will need make-up for that role so that make-up argument doesn’t matter. But honestly, someone with a darker skin colour would require A LOT more make-up, covering everything incl. ears, face, throat, hands etc. That means that the actor probably would have to do a make-up routine of at least 2 hours every day just to cover all the visible body parts.
    I could understand the outrage if there were African American actors that had the same or similar skin than Jackson. But I don’t think there are any (please correct me when I’m wrong).

    • Al'n says:

      Michael had an aversion to sunlight. Whether it was vitiligo, as he said it was, or him bleaching his skin, as tabloids and commenters below seem to think is the case, it doesn’t change the fact that almost every inch of his skin was covered whenever he was out in public. Long hair shading most of his face, long sleeve shirts, and pants. If the argument is purely cosmetic, that leaves part of his face and hands that need dealing with. It’s not as if there aren’t light-skinned black actors working today who could handle that. Evan Ross, son of Diana (a close personal friend of Michael), is an obvious choice that could’ve actually added a positive aspect to this film rather than this negative one. Casting Fiennes because of his name and skin-tone doesn’t make it any less culturally insensitive.

  18. SERIOUSLY says:

    MICHAEL JACKSON HAD WHITE SKIN IN THE TIME THIS FILM TAKES PLACE

  19. Bill B. says:

    There is absolutely no racial issue here, though those obsessed with the topic may try to make it one. Jackson was physically white long before he died.

    • Katie says:

      …Other than the fact that Michael Jackson considered himself black, was proud of being black, and was visibly distressed at the idea of a white actor portraying him. Check out the 1993 interview he did with Oprah– he was “physically white” at the time then too.

  20. The Disrespect and Mockery of @SkyArts portraying 3 famous humanitarians.
    I knew about the @SkyArts TV series set to air at BRITAIN’s Sky Arts with a FICTIONAL STORY about Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson after 9/11 attack. At the time it didn´t get too much attention but it got more attention when they cast Joseph Fiennes (a white actor) to play Michael Jackson (a black man).

    Instead of focus on the issue Black and White that has been addressed so well for so many and since Joseph Fiennes has gotten his free promotion out of that, I would like to express my deepest disgust for the way @SkyArts is portraying these 3 important humanitarians in this awful TV series.

    This series shows not only a lack of respect as a mockery of those who fight for another human being and for the victims of such terrible event. Maybe, because is a British production, just guessing, the producers don’t realize how painful and tragic it was not only but mainly to Americans. This pain last until today and it is not easily forgotten.

    In their FICTIONAL AND UNTRUE story, which never came close to happen, Sky Arts portrayed ELIZABETH TAYLOR as a selfish woman who only worries about her “DIAMONDS” and being KILLED:

    “ a tower of Louis Vuitton luggage on a trolley and Elizabeth at his side. She was wearing a lot of diamonds: several necklaces, bracelets up her arms, and a mink stole covered with so many brooches it looked like a pin cushion.”

    MARLON BRANDO is portrayed as a lazy fat man, who only cares about eating and sleeping:

    “Maybe even harder was getting Marlon to agree that they would not stop again for food until they hit Pennsylvania.”

    And then comes MICHAEL JACKSON portrayed as a scared guy, reneging his family and leaving his two children (Paris and Prince) and his beloved mother behind to “SAVE” his “CHOSEN” family:

    “It was almost as if his chosen family were as crushing to his emotional health as his real family!”

    This TV series is a disrespect to “ALL” celebrities, like these 3, who joined efforts to support the victims and raised the awareness for love and peace.

    These 3 celebrities have cared for those in distress more than any of the producers of this awful series, these 3 celebrities have done in their life and death more charity work than anyone on Sky Arts board.

    This is a TV series which MUST be boycotted and MJ fans, Elizabeth Taylor Fans, Marlon Brando fans and ALL American celebrities (black or white) should CALL for the BOYCOTT.

    Not written by MJJJP .. but expresses our views as well…

    • Michael anthony says:

      Lord, your overblown comments takes the
      cake! Yes its FICTION as you note, but that also makes it UNTRUE, which you also note. And what part of the definition of FICTION, do you not understand? Obviously nothing, since you take issue with how different from real life these characters are.

      SBD boycott? Yes, by all means boycott something you haven’t seen. That’s the most inane time to call for a boycott.

  21. Christopher says:

    Has anyone noticed that in the photos accompanying this article, Fiennes is actually darker-skinned than Jackson!

  22. Kromsnaveland says:

    Just when you thought Hollywood couldn’t get any weirder…but, why not?

  23. Flosse says:

    Oh, gimme a break! Michael Jackson was a black guy, but did everything to turn white. Compare his face and skin color over time. If you take a black actor you have to put heavy white make-up on him, so what’s the point of that fake outrage for outrage’s sake?
    Where were all those righteous critics when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm, a blonde, blue-eyed white dude or when Samuel L. Jackson played Nick Fury?

    • Al'n says:

      Johnny Storm is FICTIONAL. Those “critics” you’re imagining didn’t exist are the same people who complained (in addition to Michael B. Jordon) about the idea that Idris could be Bond. See “Murica!” comment below.

      And who do you imagine wouldn’t need make-up to play Michael Jackson?

      • NC says:

        @Al’n A voice of reason here. I really don’t see how Joseph Fiennes is anywhere closer to looking like MJ than any black actor. They all need major makeup. At least, a black actor can be aesthetically right for this iconic role and won’t come across as a joke if he doesn’t look precisely like MJ.

      • Flosse says:

        So black people would not complain if Nicolas Cage plays Luke Cage? Seriously?
        Or what about Tom Cruise as Black Panther?

        Joseph Finnes doesn’t look bad as a possible Michael Jackson, even without makeup. But try to imagine Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson or Idris Elba in the Jackson role. Yeah, I can’t either…

      • Al'n says:

        Or Michael Eely. Or Wentworth Miller. Or Jacob Anderson. Or Evan Ross.

        No one looks like Michael Jackson. Period. Make-up will always be a major necessity. Unless you’re intentionally being disrespectful, which it sounds like this made-for-tv garbage is. So, since major make-up was needed anyway, they could’ve at least been culturally sensitive.

        Also, what is your position, exactly? Are you mad that no white people complained about Michael B. Jordan’s casting? Or, now that you know they did, are you mad that black people would complain about Tom Cruise playing Black Panther? Seems like you’re just here to stir the pot.

  24. Murica! says:

    These casting announcements are ridiculous!! MJ should be played by a black actor and a mexican actor should portay Valdez.

    There will never be a black bond!! Bond is white. Deal with it!! Respect Ian Fleming!!

    • Al'n says:

      Bond’s a blue-eyed, black-haired Eaton boy born circa 1920 and he’s got a big old scar on his cheek. If we’re going to talk about “respecting Ian Fleming,” it can’t just be in terms of the race of his character.

    • Rudy Mario says:

      Agreed with your sane comments l

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