NEW YORK • British actor Joseph Fiennes has been cast as African- American pop icon Michael Jackson in an upcoming television comedy, provoking scorn on social media on Wednesday and fuelling a controversy over opportunities for black artists.
The 45-year-old star of Shakespeare In Love (1998), who is white, will play the late King of Pop in an apparently real-life story about a road trip across the United States that Jackson is said to have taken with his late close friends, movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, following the 9/11 attacks.
Britain's satellite TV channel Sky Arts said in a statement on Wednesday that the 30-minute comedy, called Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, 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".
Jackson, who had the medical condition vitiligo that lightened the colour of his skin, died in 2009 at age 50.
News of the casting decision came two weeks after the omission of any actors of colour from the Oscar nominations for a second year, leading to talk of a boycott of the ceremony on Feb 28 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' declaration it would bring more women and people of colour into its ranks.
Stereo Williams, an entertainment writer for The Daily Beast website, said the casting of Fiennes was a "symptom of Hollywood's deep-seated race problem".
"They seriously couldn't find a black actor to play Michael Jackson?" tweeted civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"So Joseph Fiennes (A WHITE DUDE!) is gonna play Michael Jackson... I say Denzel Washington plays Elvis in the next movie just to be fair," said @nicomadden on Twitter.
So-called whitewashing has become a contentious issue in the entertainment industry, highlighted by the casting of Caucasian Emma Stone as a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in the 2015 film Aloha and the choice of Briton Charlie Hunnam to play a Mexican-American drug lord in the upcoming Hollywood movie American Drug Lord.
Details of Jackson's improbable road trip were reported in Vanity Fair magazine in 2011. Apparently, he had invited Taylor and Brando to his concerts at Madison Square Garden on Sept 7 and 10, 2001. Grounded in New York after 9/11, the three superstars were said to have set off home to California on their own in a rented car.
"They actually got as far as Ohio - all three of them, in a car they drove themselves," a former Jackson employee was quoted as saying in Vanity Fair. Brando allegedly slowed his friends down by insisting on stopping at various KFC and Burger King restaurants.
A Taylor assistant said the actress did not take the trip, but stayed behind to visit Ground Zero and to pray in a church. However, with no reports of Taylor sightings at Ground Zero, the story prevails.
Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon will also star Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando. It is expected to be broadcast some time this year.