As Hollywood wrestles with criticism following the absence of black Academy Award nominees this year, social media responded to an announcement that actor Joseph Fiennes, who is white, will play black pop star Michael Jackson in a half-hour comedy special.
“Joseph Fiennes is playing Michael Jackson? Fab. Now we can all shut up about lack of diversity,” tweeted Iranian-British comedian Shappi Khorsandi. Black comedian Orlando Jones wrote that he was “TOTALLY on board with Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson IF AND ONLY IF Angela Bassett is cast as Elizabeth Taylor.”
In more serious commentary, the black-oriented TV network BET tweeted, “A White Actor will play MJ. Because we aren’t whitewashed enough in Hollywood, apparently.” Conversely, one person noted, “There’s a black actor, Daveed Diggs, playing Thomas Jefferson right now” in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
The UK channel Sky Arts said Fiennes, 45, will star with Brian Cox and Stockard Channing in “Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon,” about a likely apocryphal road trip that Jackson and film legends Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor were said to have taken in the aftermath of 9/11, when commercial flights were grounded.
Set to premiere this year, the comedy “takes a lighthearted look at a reportedly true event,” Sky Arts said in a statement. “It is part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history. Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set.”
Fiennes on Wednesday told “Entertainment Tonight,” “I’m a white, middle-class guy from London. I’m as shocked as you may be.” He called the script “kind of off-the-wall, but the writing is a delight, and the kind of interaction between the three of them is funny, and also full of pathos,” adding, “It’s a light-comedy look. It’s not in any way malicious. It’s actually endearing.”
Vanity Fair wrote of the trip in a 2011 article, noting that one of Taylor’s assistants told the magazine the actress actually remained in New York, where she met with first responders.