The affront of Michael Jackson being played by a white guy

— 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.

The glorious force of Natalie Cole

— Whatever life threw at Natalie Cole, she kept coming back. And hers was not an easy life: There was the loss of a parent during adolescence, the drug dependency and then a series of illnesses serious enough to have put one of the most lucrative and widely beloved music careers in jeopardy.

Yet Cole overcame these tribulations with such glorious consistency that it was a shock to begin the New Year hearing news of her passing the night of December 31 at age 65 from congestive heart disease. There were reports that she’d been hospitalized last month, but somehow we’d thought she’d find a way to pull through again.

And when she did pull through, as she did after a 1983 stint in rehab from drug addiction (the perils of which were detailed in her 2000 autobiography, “Angel on My Shoulder”), she came back stronger than ever with a string of late-1980s hits (“I Live for Your Love,” “Pink Cadillac,” “Miss You Like Crazy”) whose success came close to rivaling her phenomenal rise in the mid-1970s with “This Will Be,” “I Can’t Say No,” “Be Thankful,” “Our Love” and the title track from her 1975 star-making LP, “Inseparable.”

But it was 1991’s “Unforgettable…With Love” that elevated Natalie Cole’s name to something close to epochal stature. She had for the first two decades of her pop-singing career resisted performing and recording songs closely associated with her legendary father, Nat King Cole, who died of lung cancer in 1965 when he was 45 years old, and she was 15.

On this album, she fully embraced her father’s legacy by performing updated jazz-pop versions of his signature hits, including “Paper Moon,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “L-O-V-E,” “Route 66” and “Mona Lisa” that evoked vivid memories of her father even as they allowed her to reassert her own distinctive style and broad resources as a vocalist.

This symbiosis of talents reached a technical and emotional peak with an engineered “duet” of father and daughter on “Unforgettable,” which led older and younger generations of record buyers to take the album rapidly into platinum-sales status. The Grammys rewarded the risk with six of its top awards, including Album of the Year.

The “Unforgettable” duet kicked off a veritable sub-genre of albums pairing such elder statesmen of classic pop as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett with a wide range of contemporary vocalists from rock, soul and even country music.

More important, the album’s success established Natalie Cole as a vocal artist who was as credible a force with jazz aficionados as she was popular with pop music lovers. Sinatra and Bennett, along with Cole’s father, are among the very few who share that distinction.

She continued to successfully mine the jazz repertoire without turning her back on the R&B-Soul music that made her a star.

And yet…she could never get free of health issues. She announced in 2008 that she’d been diagnosed with hepatitis-C, a liver disease she said came from her years as an intravenous drug user. Treatment for that disease led to the deterioration of her kidneys and she frequently needed dialysis in the last few years of her life.

Yet, again, despite the setback, she came back swinging, securing yet another Grammy nomination, for Best Latin Album, for her 2013 Spanish-language LP, “En Espanol.”

She was, for a time, not just “unforgettable.”

She was — until now — unstoppable.

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.


At Oscars, black artists show they’re here to stay

— When, in 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won both lead-acting honors at the Academy Awards, pundits and spin doctors were anxious to declare that the Oscars had achieved a great black apotheosis.

They were off by, well, 12 years,

As in “12 Years a Slave,” which won three Oscars at Sunday night’s ceremony. These included best picture, a prize many believed would go to its closest competitor, the space thriller “Gravity” — a film that did win seven Oscars of its own Sunday night, including one for its director, Alfonso Cuaron.

And though “Slave’s” British director Steve McQueen missed out on becoming the first black filmmaker to win for best director, it seemed altogether appropriate for him to have had the last word with best picture during a ceremony more auspicious for African-American talent than any of its predecessors.

Whether it was the thunderous ovation that greeted Lupita Nyong’o as she accepted the best supporting actress prize for “12 Years a Slave,” or the rousing reception that veteran pop vocalist Darlene Love received for her spontaneous a capella chorus of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” as the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” received the best documentary prize, there was a sense that in the variety of awards and recognition, black artists in film were no longer announcing their arrival. They were there to stay.

This prospect gets further context in a year that also saw the release of two commercially successful films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” that both emerged from and further stimulated the ongoing transition in America’s racial dialogue.

And if there was any doubt as to the significance of this night’s milestones, it was emphatically erased by the appearance of 87-year-old Sidney Poitier, who, though frail and struggling to speak, nonetheless accepted a sustained standing ovation from the audience as he leaned on Angelina Jolie for support. He was there to mark the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking win of the 1963 best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field.”

He and Jolie presented screenwriting honors, one of which went to John Ridley, whose win for best adapted screenplay for “12 Years a Slave” made him only the second African-American to win a writing Oscar.

These were the most momentous aspects of a ceremony that otherwise cruised along in a laid-back groove, conspicuous in its relative dearth of snarkiness, thanks mostly to this year’s host, Ellen DeGeneres, a daytime-TV-certified Nice Person, whose female impersonator joke at Liza Minnelli’s expense early in the proceedings was about as nasty as things got all night.

And while Minnelli did not look amused at first, she seemed an enthusiastic participant in the evening’s most “tweet” running gag: the “selfie” riff. DeGeneres spread it out into the audience, drawing Meryl Streep and everybody else in the first rows into a selfie that quickly set a retweet record, and apparently temporarily broke Twitter’s platform. It all seemed very baggy-sweater cozy and fun to watch.

But would it be, well, snarky to suggest that the camera phone she was springing into action was provided by Samsung, one of the broadcast’s biggest sponsors?

It’s tough playing the spoilsport for what some might consider the sweetest Academy Awards ceremony in years — and others might call the most cloying. There was little opportunity for embarrassment as the evening clipped cheerfully along, and even the disorienting sight of 81-year-old Kim Novak’s facelift was mitigated by best actor winner Matthew McConaughey’s courtly grace as they presented the animation prizes.

One remembers what novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler once wrote about the awards back in 1949 — that they are a manifestation of Hollywood’s “chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing.”

He’s still not altogether wrong. Any Academy Awards ceremony can seem like a water drop on the linoleum counter of history. It leaves no stain, no residue. It just evaporates.

But thanks to “12 Years a Slave,” maybe not this one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.