The whole idea of Fiennes (a white man) playing Jackson (a black man) has been a contentious casting from the start, with some saying it’s inappropriate and others believing it’s entirely unnecessary to depict the King of Pop on the show.
In the half-hour Urban Myths episode, Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) appears alongside Stockard Channing as Elizabeth Taylor and Brian Cox as Marlon Brando. The script is based on a road trip the three stars are rumoured to have made in an attempt to leave New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. (For the record, Jackson’s nephew TJ, who’s also the legal guardian of Jackson’s three children, says the whole story is fictitious.)
“It’s offensive to me and my family for my uncle Michael to be portrayed in a comedy taking place around 9/11,” said TJ Jackson to Entertainment Tonight in January 2016. “Like everyone else, he was distraught, saddened and trying to process what had just happened. Following the events of 9/11, my uncle, Michael, stayed with a family friend in New Jersey for a week before flying back. The rest of our family immediately took buses back to Los Angeles as planes were grounded. There was no road trip with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. I have no comment on the casting of the project.”
Jackson’s nephew wasn’t the only one perturbed by the upcoming show. Twitter and social media erupted with shock Tuesday night after the first footage was released.
For his part, Fiennes has defended his casting, saying people need to be “colour blind” when it comes to playing a role.
He recalls seeing a performance of the play After the Fall, where a black woman was tasked with playing Marilyn Monroe, and film critics refused to even see it because of the casting.
“From that moment, I realized how important colour-blind casting was, and when I went to drama school and went through my career in theatre, I’ve known nothing but colour-blind casting,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It might offer something new and fresh and funny as long as it doesn’t become disenfranchising, racial or rude or stereotypical, then it’s the wrong place. But if it’s offering something else that’s positive in discussion, we have to entertain colour-blind casting at all levels.”
“It’s not a biopic, and it’s not Michael in his younger days,” said Fiennes. “It’s Michael in his last days when he did look, quite frankly, rather differently than when we grew up with him in the ’80s or earlier. So it’s Michael as we last remembered him. The decision with the casting and the producers — I wrangled with it, I was confused and shocked at what might come my way, and I knew the sensitivity, especially to Michael’s fans and to Michael’s family. It doesn’t negate who he was.”
The episode is upcoming, but it’s unclear as of this writing if Canadians will be able to see it.