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It’s Not Okay That Joseph Fiennes Has Been Cast to Play Michael Jackson

Caucasian actor, Joseph Fiennes, has recently been cast to play the iconic Michael Jackson in an upcoming “9/11 road trip comedy” for Sky Arts. Bizarre premise aside, the Internet has been in uproar over the casting of a Caucasian actor to play the African-American King of Pop. Especially considering the recent all-white Oscar nominations and the historical lack of diversity in the acting world. It seems the casting director has learnt nothing, shedding further light on the systemic race problems that underlie Hollywood.

During his life Michael Jackson’s skin-colour has always been an area of great speculation, as we watched his skin become progressively paler over the course of his life. Though regardless of this ambiguity, Jackson always identified as a black man. Jackson may have passed as white in later life, but he always identified as an African-American and a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey has resurfaced online, showing Jackson proudly affirm his racial identity and recoil at the very idea of being played by a white actor.

Angelie Jolie in A Mighty Heart, playing Mariane Heart – a woman of mixed race. 

(Photo Credit: www.bcurrentmag.com)

To cast a Caucasian actor to play Jackson is effectively removing his black identity. White-washing such a prominent figure of African-American legacy is frankly offensive, especially for actors of African-American ethnicity who struggle to even find work portraying their own racial experience. Meanwhile, white-washing roles are rife in Hollywood with no one batting an eyelash over Emma Stone’s recent role as a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in the 2015 film “Aloha,“, whilst black actors such as Idris Elba and Noma Dumezweni received widespread attention and speculation over their authenticity to play James Bond and Hermione Granger, respectively.

Over and over again the media scorn the concept of a black actor playing a fictional character, yet it seems that for a white actor to play a real-life black person is completely fine.

Though there are some such as Stacey Dash, who applaud Fienne’s casting, saying “Roles Should Not Be Dictated by Race”, this approach is ultimately too idealistic. Some might see Fiennes casting as another example of colour-blind acting, which has grown prominent in recent years, especially on stage. Whilst colour-blind acting is for the most part a positive change for the acting world, broadening opportunities for racial minorities and breaking down on-screen and on-stage racial stereotypes, people need to remember that Jackson was a real person. Currently with so few opportunities for actors of colour, this is yet another example of how Hollywood clearly has a long way to go.  

Ella Wilks-Harper studies English Literature at the University of Bristol and is the current Deputy Editor for Inter:Mission, the University's arts online magazine. A confessed review fiend who is fond of Bristol theatres and free tickets.
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