Can a White Actor Play Michael Jackson?


Joseph Fiennes is trending on Twitter.

The white actor, who is best known as the star of Shakespeare in Love, has been cast as Michael Jackson in an upcoming film, a decision that is causing much toil and trouble on social media, including accusations of blackface.

Fiennes will be portraying the late singer in Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, a comedy that depicts a road trip allegedly taken by Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Marlon Brando after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But many are not laughing at the casting choice. As Hollywood reels from yet another year of all-white Oscar nominations in the acting categories and "transface" debates continue to rage each time a cisgender (nontrans) actor is given a transgender role, the decision to have a white man portray one of the greatest black entertainers of the 20th century has added fuel to the fiery debate about straight, white privilege in Tinseltown. As such, it's no surprise that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is frequently used when discussing Fiennes.

The incident has reignited a conversation involving Jackson and race that has been going on for decades (and in a larger picture, centuries). In a 1996 interview between Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, which recently surfaced, Jackson himself said he would never want to be portrayed by a white actor.

“Why would I want a white child to play me?” he said, in response to rumors that a white child actor would portray him as a youth in a Pepsi commercial. “I’m a black American. I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am.”

Rumors of how Jackson felt about his race dogged him throughout his adulthood. His skin color visibly lightened as he became older, and the singer attributed this physical change to vitiligo, a condition that causes a loss of pigmentation.

Blackface, in which white entertainers portray African-Americans, was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries but became culturally taboo with the advent of the U.S. civil rights movement. Nevertheless, several white actors, notably Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, have recently employed the practice for comic effect.

Fiennes, to his credit, told Entertainment Tonight that he was “as shocked as you may be” about playing the role. But he defended his portrayal of Jackson.

“He was probably closer to my color than his original color,” Fiennes said. “It’s a light comedy look. It’s not in any way malicious. It’s actually endearing.” 

The debate as to whether actors can be allowed to play parts outside their identity does not only pertain to race. In the LGBT community, controversies caused by so-called “transface” occur when cisgender actors — like Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl — are cast as transgender characters.

The importance of casting gay actors in gay roles also recently made headlines. Todd Holland, a producer of ABC’s The Real O’Neals, which is inspired by the life of gay activist Dan Savage, “was in a panic” when he learned he could not legally ask an actor for their sexual orientation. For a time, he worried the part might fall to someone who could not authentically speak for the community.

"As a gay man, this is a landmark role on network television," Holland maintained. "It should not be played by a straight man pretending to be gay."

"It was important to me that they have someone who is gay and is out and is willing to be a spokesman for it," said Noah Galvin, the out actor they eventually found for the part.

Although Jackson’s sexuality was a topic of speculation throughout his lifetime — Ian Halperin’s book Unmasked, published just after the King of Pop’s death in 2009, included interviews with purported male lovers — it is not yet known whether it will be addressed in the film.

The production company, Sky Arts, has defended the choice of Fiennes in the name of “creative freedom,” making the following statement:

Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon is a Sky Arts comedy which takes a lighthearted 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 puts the integrity of the creative vision at the heart of all its original commissions, and we believe in giving producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set.”