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Why casting Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson is off the wall

The news that white actor Joseph Fiennes has signed on to play Michael Jackson in an upcoming British TV film has struck many as tone deaf and tasteless.
Actor Joseph Fiennes attends the 'Strangerland' Premiere during the Zurich Film Festival on Oct. 2, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty)
Actor Joseph Fiennes attends the 'Strangerland' Premiere during the Zurich Film Festival on Oct. 2, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. 

It was one of the most memorable moments in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death in 2009. Dozens and dozens of African-American fans gathered in front of Harlem's famous Apollo theater, singing Jackson's hit songs and mimicking his iconic dance moves. It was an outpouring of grief, an appreciation of his artistry but also a warm embrace from a community of which he was always a part, but with whom the "King of Pop" enjoyed a complex relationship.

For decades, Jackson's racial identification was called into question not just because of the evolution of his physical appearance, but also due to his shift towards a more mainstream pop sound. Nevertheless, Jackson frequently identified himself as a "proud" black American and attributed his dramatically lightened skin to the effects of the disease vitiligo (which was confirmed by his autopsy). When he died tragically at the age of 50, his well-documented personal problems went by the wayside for many black fans, and his incomparable pop culture footprint as a racial barrier breaking, transformational musical talent took hold as the predominant narrative of his legacy.

Which is why the news that white actor Joseph Fiennes has signed on to play Jackson in an upcoming British television film has struck many as tone deaf and tasteless, particularly in the aftermath of a national conversation about diversity in Hollywood sparked by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Jackson fans were apoplectic, and Slate culture writer Aisha Harris argues with good reason.

RELATED: RIP Michael Jackson: Six reasons the 'King of Pop' still reigns

"It just to me comes down to the whole whitewashing thing. It doesn't feel right to do that," she told MSNBC on Thursday. "Part of the reason why they did it, is obviously people are going to be talking about it."

Harris suspects that the casting of Fiennes may simply be a publicity stunt to draw attention to might what have otherwise been an overlooked TV movie. The production, entitled "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon," portrays an infamous (and since debunked) urban legend -- the King of Pop, the method acting icon Marlon Brando and the late diva actress Elizabeth Taylor were supposedly stranded together after a concert Jackson held at Madison Square Garden prior to the terrorists attacks 9/11. Unable to travel back to California, due to the grounding of flights nationwide, they allegedly embarked on a cross country road trip together. But while white actors who bear a reasonable resemblance to an aging Taylor and Brando were cast to play them, the choice of Fiennes to play one of the most recognizable black figures in history feels like a leap to say the least.

"I'm a white, middle-class guy from London. I'm as shocked as you may be," Fiennes said in a recent interview with "Entertainment Tonight." [Jacks] definitely had an issue -- a pigmentation issue -- and that's something I do believe," he added. "So he was probably closer to my color than his original color." Fiennes said in defense of the film's tone: "It's a light comedy look. It's not in any way malicious. It's actually endearing."

While Harris concedes that "no matter who plays him, they are going to have to be seriously made up to look like him," that doesn't mean black actors should be ruled out. "By the end of his life he looked very different, but he was still the same person," she said.

"At the end of the day Michael Joseph Jackson was a black man. Yes, his appearance, specifically his skin color changed drastically over time, but by no means does that make him any less of a black man," added BET Associate Editor Taj Rani in statement to MSNBC on Thursday. "The fact that a white actor, Joseph Fiennes, was considered and then chosen to play Jackson is baffling. Also, the fact that Joseph Fiennes is comfortable enough to play an iconic black man says a lot about his frame of mind and lack of respect for the community and the legacy of the late music legend."

And in 1993, during his highly rated sit-down prime-time interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson himself balked at rumors that he had once wanted a white child to play him as a youth in a Pepsi commercial. "That's the most ridiculous, horrifying story I've ever heard," Jackson told Winfrey. "Why would I want a white child to play me? I'm a black American."

The Fiennes film will likely stand in stark contrast to a new Michael Jackson documentary set to debut in early February, directed by Spike Lee. "Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall," his second film about Jackson's evolution as an artist and the making of one of his most celebrated albums, puts an emphasis on his artistry instead of his controversial personal life.

"So many people focus on the other stuff. We wanted to focus on the music. People might say that's a cop-out. I don't care," Lee recently told Billboard. He has repeatedly said he wants to make a third film on Jackson, focusing on his masterpiece "Thriller," which would be the most celluloid this celebrated black filmmaker has devoted to one topic other than Hurricane Katrina. 

Why are so many African-Americans protective of Jackson's brand? "He really is the only black artist I can think of who crossed over in the way that he did and reached out to every corner of the world," said Harris. She believes black people wanted to reclaim him in part because they wanted to a measure of the credit for helping introduce him to the public. Still, she says every fan, regardless of race, has a "complicated" relationship with Michael Jackson.

Whether the upcoming "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon" makes a splash or not, it will likely do little diminish the man behind the biggest selling album of all time, and who remains the top earning deceased artist. But his impact expands beyond dollars and cents. "Since his death in 2009, it seems that as consumers we want to just examine his posthumous album sales rather the complex man," Slant deputy editor Kyle Harvey told MSNBC on Thursday.

"Vitiligo and surgery aside, black people come in all colors. For a studio to greenlight this speaks volumes of how they view Michael Jackson. He’s a caricature or a cartoon than can easily be reproduced for monetary gain. It’s a slap in the face to one of black America’s biggest and brightest stars," he added. "Before the 'Wacko Jacko' commentary, his legacy as a musician was only rivaled by his love for people globally."