When most of us saw the headline that white actor Joseph Fiennes was to play Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson) in an upcoming film, we assumed it was a joke. In light of increased backlash against the homogeneity of the Oscars (that point to a larger issue within Hollywood), this casting decision is baffling; why would you cast a white actor to play one of the most celebrated black icons of all time?
The film world often does creative, subversive things to bend race and gender. Todd Haynes’ 2007 biographical film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, casts six different actors to play the musician at six separate points in his life. Two of the incarnations are played by Cate Blanchett, a woman, and Marcus Carl Franklin, a black man. This reimagining of Dylan’s life and career presents a fresh and interesting portrait of the icon.
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In a perfect, equal world, this same concept would work the other way around, with a white man occupying a traditionally black role. Yet, the current film and media landscape isn’t leveled enough for us to fully embrace Fiennes’ casting. The number of roles for nonwhite actors and actresses is already so minimal that casting a white man to play Jackson is almost cruel.
Hollywood has been called out numerous times for its tone-deafness when it comes to writing and casting. Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto (cishet men) were both recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences for their performances as transgender women, yet the equally-deserving transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor of Tangerine were completely shut out of this year’s awards race. Suffragette was criticized for its whitewashing of the women’s suffrage movement, then for its misguided promotional photoshoot. And, of course, Hollywood’s insistence that ancient Middle-Eastern people were just white people with eyeliner.
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Of course, this notion of normalized media doesn’t apply solely to biopics and historical dramas (although Hollywood already can’t handle getting even that right). Nonwhite actors deserve more serious, dramatic roles that don’t necessarily surround their sex, race, or sexual orientation. The most widely touted defense against this sort of backlash is the concept of “the best person for the job,” which is a flawed theory, especially when it comes to dismantling the system that shuts out diverse voices again and again.
But until we can start getting casting right, there’s no way we can accept casting decisions like this, artistic choices and merit notwithstanding.