If we’re to believe Elizabeth Taylor’s former assistant Sam Kashner, in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Marlon Brando took a road trip together in an attempt to flee New York City. The story is of dubious nature even when you consider the bizarre tics and lifestyles of the three major players involved, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining to imagine, as Zadie Smith did in a humorous short fiction story for the New Yorker last year. And so it’s only natural that someone would want to recreate this urban legend for the screen.
Enter Scottish journalist Neil Forsyth, who has written the untitled half-hour TV special adaptation, and which has now announced its main stars: Stockard Channing as Taylor, Brian Cox as Brando, and … Joseph Fiennes as the King of Pop???*
Ah, yes—Fiennes, a white English actor probably best known for playing Shakespeare, in love, is portraying the most iconic black American musician in the world. The announcement is certainly deserving of a double take, but if you think about it, this issue was bound to come up sooner or later: In any serious film involving a depiction of Jackson spanning several decades (or just covering his late-’80s period from Bad on), the question of whether you cast a black or white actor (or both) to play the part seems like a legitimate thing to ponder. After all, Jackson himself embraced his ever-morphing physical appearance both in life and in his music videos, and so taking creative liberties for a movie about him shouldn’t seem totally out of line, right?
The answer to that question, dear casting director, should be obvious: Nope, you don’t cast a white actor to play Michael Jackson—you get a black guy to play him, because MJ was black even when he was “white.” Just because our relationship and understanding of him evolved as his persona became more feminine and his skin tone more pale, that doesn’t mean he was a fundamentally different person—he was still the same guy who donned a wildly amazing ’fro on the cover of Off the Wall, the same dynamic superstar who had to fight to get his music videos played on MTV in the early ’80s because they were reluctant to play black artists at the time. Even long after he had made his physical transformation and black people accused him of racial self-hatred, he was still a guy who spoke unabashedly about how poorly the music industry has treated black artists in comparison to white ones. And even more obviously, you don’t cast a white actor to play Michael Jackson, because you’ve learned from the years of Hollywood whitewashing leading all the way up to last year, when Emma Stone was cast as an Asian character in Aloha.
And yet … perhaps you remember a made-for-TV movie about Jackson called Man in the Mirror and starring Flex Alexander (One on One), in which they covered Alexander in what appears to be baby powder, so that he looked more like Dave Chappelle as news announcer Chuck Taylor. And you think to yourself, maybe it does make sense to have a white actor play him?
Nope, it’s still a terrible idea. Find the right black actor who can perfectly capture all of Jackson’s complexities—his femininity, his weirdness, his naiveté, and yes, his black cultural upbringing—and invest in better makeup and prosthetics than whoever was in charge of that terrible Man in the Mirror movie. Or cast a light-skinned black actor in the role. But casting a white actor in the role is uninspired, an easy way to ignore just how complicated he really was. And if there’s anything Jackson taught us, it’s that nothing is so simple as black or white.
Correction, Jan. 27, 2016: This post originally misidentified the project as a feature film.