British actor Joseph Fiennes will portray Michael Jackson in an upcoming television movie. News of his performance—which has already been shot—comes as the film world reckons with its own issues of representation and empowerment for people of color.
Fiennes, who is White, is best known for portraying a young William Shakespeare in 1998’s "Shakespeare in Love." The upcoming movie, titled "Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon," will air on British channel Sky Arts on an undisclosed date. It draws from a Vanity Fair story that ran almost five years ago, which described how Jackson invited actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando to see him perform at Madison Square Garden right before September 11, 2001. After the attacks, all flights to and from New York were grounded, prompting the trio to rent a car and drive West. Taylor and Brando are respectively played by Stockard Channing and Brian Cox.
Fiennes addressed the controversy around portraying the iconic Black musician to Entertainment Tonight, saying, "He was probably closer to my color than his original color." Sky Arts offered a statement to Mic, saying "Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set."
The decision was roundly lampooned and critiqued on Twitter:
When Joseph Fiennes’ agent came to him and said "I want you to audition for the role of MJ" how did Joseph not hang up on him???
— Awesomely Luvvie (@Luvvie) January 27, 2016
Oddly enough, it won’t be the first time I’ll see Joseph Fiennes portray a man of color. I saw him 20 years ago as Jesus in a London play.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 26, 2016
— AJ+ (@ajplus) January 27, 2016