(CNN) — You have to love the exquisite timing, at the very least.
Our ears are still ringing from the concussive noises and boycott threats after a second consecutive year of all-white Academy Awards nominees were announced only days ago. Now comes the disclosure that Joseph Fiennes, a white actor best known for playing the title role in the 1998 Oscar winner “Shakespeare in Love,” has been cast to play another artistic icon: Michael Jackson.
No, this website didn’t just morph into The Onion before your eyes. These are the facts: The British-based Sky Arts cable channel is scheduled to broadcast a road movie speculating on what might have happened if, as urban legend has it, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson, who were all in New York when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, drove together back to Los Angeles.
Stockard Channing has been cast as Taylor, Brian Cox will play Brando and Joseph Fiennes will play the late, much lamented King of Pop.
News of what’s now titled “Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon” detonated even louder noises of outrage, mostly from African-Americans who take it deeply, profoundly personally that one of their cultural heroes, the greatest song-and-dance man of the 20th century’s latter half, will be portrayed by a nonblack actor.
Paraphrasing one tweet: “Let me get this straight. Idris Elba can’t play James Bond, but it’s OK for Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson?” (Elba, whose performance in last year’s “Beasts of No Nation,” is considered by black and white movie fans as one of many egregious omissions from this year’s Oscar slate, was for a while prominent among many British actors named as potential replacements for Daniel Craig in the 007 role.) Other reactions were far less polite — and, by a considerable majority, outraged and affronted.
It IS an outrageous decision on more than a few levels. Then again, the whole project sounds outrageous, even with such a prestigious cast. It’s not implausible that three outsized personalities such as Taylor, Brando and Jackson would have been compelled to carpool during a time when planes were kept on the ground. A lot of people who weren’t icons, including yours truly, had to scramble for travel options in 9/11’s immediate aftermath.
Fiennes has described the project as a “fun, lighthearted romp” while being “rather beautiful and poignant about their relationships.” He also described his part in the project with what we’ll characterize as typical British understatement, as “a challenge.”
So far, it’s hard to find anybody willing to speculate as to how Michael Jackson himself would feel about a white British actor assuming his persona for dramatic purposes. Likely he would have regarded any such performance as an imposition on his zealously protected privacy and would have insisted on near-absolute control over who was cast in the part.
And would HE have cast as black actor in the part? One pauses (for many reasons), but in the end, one must consider that, because he WAS Michael Jackson, he would have tried harder than others apparently did to find a black actor who could do the part justice.
I know what some of you may be thinking: If we’re really aiming for something like a “colorblind society” then why inhibit in both directions? After all, if you wanted to consider casting Idris Elba as 007, why shouldn’t a white actor be given the option of playing a black icon?
Here’s why, just for starters: James Bond is both a fictitious character and a corporate franchise. Jackson, whatever else one may say or think about him, was a real person with genuine, if complex, roots in a culture that provided the foundation of what made him special. Being attentive to such roots is what has for so long challenged show business in general and Hollywood in particular.
In a better world, emotionally evolved enough to regard race itself as a dubious concept, people on all sides of what we now consider the “race problem” will be empowered to take chances. We’re only starting to take those chances now. And the burden, like it or not, now falls on whites in power to show some vision, broaden the paradigms, do something transformative to what remains a mostly reductive view of black and brown people among predominantly white audiences.
For instance: Is anybody up for a light-skinned black actor to play Dwight Eisenhower as a West Point cadet? Just thinking out loud.
Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.