Does It Matter If the Actor Playing Michael Jackson in the New Biopic Is Black or White?
Shutterstock/ Vicki L. Miller
On November 11, 1991, the late King of Pop Michael Jackson released the instant-hit song “Black or White.” It is one of the most notable and important songs in his oeuvre because it addresses issues we will be fighting until the world implodes and cats take over: racial and gender issues.
Recently, the Internet exploded when it was announced that Joseph Fiennes, a white British actor, and brother of Ralph Fiennes (whom you best know as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film series), is going to play Michael Jackson in the made-for-TV movie, Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon. The film is “a road trip that takes place after the 9/11 attacks, taking Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando from New York City to Los Angeles, California.” (IMDb.com); Stockard Channing (white; plays Rizzo in 1978's Grease) is Elizabeth Taylor, and Brian Cox (white) will be Marlon Brando. This story is based on an urban legend, and there are great articles about it — my favorite being that Brando insisted they stop at KFC and Burger King. (Which is why I want this story to be true — a man after my own heart.)
When Googling “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” here are some of the headlines that popped up: “The Whitest Guy in History as Michael Jackson” (CC.com), “The Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor Story Gets Even Crazier Thanks to Casting” (Vanity Fair), “Michael Jackson Should Not Be Played By a White Man” (Time), “What Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando really did after 9/11” (NYPost.com), “Chris Brown on Joseph Fiennes' casting as Michael Jackson: 'I don't support that corny ass s***’” (NME.com), “Backlash after Joseph Fiennes cast as Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon” (Sydney Morning Herald), and my personal favorite, “Joseph Fiennes 'as Shocked as You' to Portray Michael Jackson” (Entertainment Tonight).
Yes, a privileged, well-off white actor is as shocked as us with the announcement he will play the most famous African American music artist the world may ever see. This ding dong has been in negotiations to play the King of Pop for some time — that’s how showbiz works. SMH. (That’s Internet slang for “Shaking My Head.” My mom had to tell me what this meant. True story, another time.)
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However, there are some things to think about here:
Jackson’s hit, “Black or White,” is about accepting racial diversity. Is it a true travesty that a white man is playing the legendary singer, specifically during the time in his life when Jackson’s pigmentation was closer to white than black? After all, Jackson did belt out in the hit song, “It doesn’t matter if you're black or white!”
When interviewed by Oprah once upon a time, the late singer told her in regards to a white child playing him in a Pepsi commercial: "That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard … why would I want a white child to play me? 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. I have a lot of pride in who I am and dignity.” However, at the end of the “Black or White” music video, the super young, super-famous-at-the-time white actor Macaulay Culkin lip-syncs, “I'm not going to spend my life being a color.” To be fair, that wasn’t Michael Jackson singing that line in the song, but that line represents him, his spirit, and the point he was trying to make.
Michael (or Elizabeth, or Marlon, for that matter) isn’t around to make a statement on this movie, so really, nobody’s opinion matters. This movie is going to happen whether you or I want it to or not.
Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon is either going to work out just OK or be a complete disaster. If I had to pick, since it’s a TV biopic, the $3 in my bank account says it’s going to be a fiasco (a slam-dunk made-for-television biopic is a rarity and there hasn’t been one worth not ridiculing in some time. There’s already a TV biopic on Jackson called Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story and it’s a real piece of work. Moreover, have you seen Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story or Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story? Google those shits.).
For this film to avoid major mockery, it is going to need a lot of makeup, really good writing and directing, and Fiennes to give it his all.
Here’s a secret I’m going to share, and tell everyone. If you are on the same bandwagon as me when it comes to TV biopics (they will never work due in part to poor casting), hold on to that curiosity tight and don’t watch them. When it comes to a biopic being made into a big, theatrical feature, it’s a whole new ballgame. It means a bigger budget and a more responsible and intelligent team of writers, producers and director. Are you following me?
Chew on this while I head to Burger King. I’m hungry.
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