No, you’re not reading things incorrectly. Joseph Fiennes will play Michael Jackson — yes, the legendary King of Pop — in a celebrity road trip movie about MJ trying to escape New York City with pals Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando after the tragic events 9/11. Huh.
Fiennes will join Stockard Channing (yes!) as Taylor and Brian Cox (yes!!) as Brando in the British TV movie. The untitled project is based on an incredible, albeit refuted, Vanity Fair story that cites a former Jackson employee and alleges that following 9/11, when air travel to and from New York was cancelled, the famous trio rented a car and attempted to drive to California. This is all according to pop culture lore, as Taylor’s old assistant claimed the actress never joined Brando and Jackson on the fantastical trip.
Regardless of the story’s validity, the casting of Fiennes has been met with maligned reactions on social media. Some likened it to Hollywood’s ongoing diversity problem — in which there are limited opportunities for actors of color in the current industry landscape — while others just couldn’t believe a white English actor had been cast to play one of the most successful black entertainers of all time.
The world's reaction to Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson pic.twitter.com/EGLKYSETIO
— AL (@MissSchliez) January 27, 2016
The fact that the Joseph Fiennes & Charlie Hunnam whitewashing announcements are made during #OscarsSoWhite campaign says a whole lot.
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) January 27, 2016
The fine actor Joseph Fiennes will play Michael Jackson in a whacky TV drama. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? Oh wait, I know how…
— Lani Conway (@LaniConway) January 27, 2016
Joseph Fiennes can play Michael Jackson. (A real person). But Idris can't play James Bond (a fake spy for a fake agency)? Cool, cool, cool.
— Prentice Penny (@The_A_Prentice) January 27, 2016
Congratulations to noted African-American actor Joseph Fiennes on being cast as Michael Jackson…
— Scott Mendelson (@ScottMendelson) January 27, 2016
I'm TOTALLY on board with Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson IF AND ONLY IF Angela Bassett is cast as Elizabeth Taylor
— Orlando Jones (@TheOrlandoJones) January 27, 2016
I can't even comment on this Michael Jackson/Joseph Fiennes thing. It's so ridiculous that it feels like we're all being punk'd
— Black Girl Nerds (@BlackGirlNerds) January 27, 2016
Remember, this is not Joseph Fiennes' fault. I'd play Michael Jackson too if someone offered me the role. Crazy that execs signed off on him
— Jeff Sneider (@TheInSneider) January 27, 2016
Joseph Fiennes is really going to play MJ?? uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh pic.twitter.com/kOIZmH16s8
— Jess Camacho (@CamachoJess) January 27, 2016
Fiennes himself has described the script as “a challenge,” telling The Guardian, “It’s a fun, lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek road trip of what celebrity of that kind is like. But also it’s rather beautiful and poignant about their relationships.”
Don’t get it twisted: We’re all for a buddy road trip movie with Jackson, Taylor and Brando — it’s like the ultimate celebrity cocktail party — but the decision to cast Fiennes seems a little tone deaf. After all, the color of Jackson’s skin circa 2001 doesn’t negate his black cultural upbringing and his overall cultural significance to the community.
If anything, Fiennes’ casting only highlights the critical need for more representation in the entertainment industry. If actors of color don’t even have the opportunity to play Michael Jackson, then we have a hell of a lot more work to do.