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The whitewashing of Michael Jackson, explained

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Michael Jackson is unequivocally the most prolific entertainer of all time. From the moment he hit the James Brown shuffle in his Motown audition in 1968, there was no question he’d be a star.

His work, first as lead of the Jackson 5 and then in his unparalleled solo career, proved this to be true. For fans, especially those who stuck by him in good times and bad, depicting the late Jackson demands the same precision he dedicated to his craft. And at the moment, one UK TV movie casting decision seems to be falling short.

Last Tuesday, news circulated that the UK television channel Sky Arts is producing a "9/11 road trip comedy" about how Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando supposedly drove away from New York after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The storyline is based on a vignette from Taylor’s life featured in a June 2011 Vanity Fair story, and it admittedly errs on the side of an urban legend because no one can quite confirm it.

The only undeniable fact about the project, as it stands, is that white actor Joseph Fiennes has been cast to play Jackson, who was black, even though his skin tone changed over the course of his career.

To put it mildly, not everyone is on board.

Most of the resistance comes from the accusation that the casting decision is another case of whitewashing in the film and TV industry. Which isn’t false. Why, for instance, didn’t Sky Arts choose another black actor to play Jackson, who self-identified as black? If casting were colorblind, why aren't Brando and Taylor played by nonwhite actors?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There’s a specific way race and skin color are tied together, and someone seems to have misunderstood how the two have been linked, both over the course of history and throughout Jackson’s lifetime.

Fiennes was "shocked" he was asked to play Jackson. Jackson would be, too.

Amidst rising skepticism of the Fiennes casting, ET had an exclusive interview with the actor on Wednesday to get his take on the whole situation. And it turns out he also didn’t see himself as the obvious pick to play the late pop star.

"I’m a white, middle-class guy from London," Fiennes said. "I’m as shocked as you may be."

The "you" Fiennes is referring to is more than likely people who are living today who are paying attention to the situation. But Jackson’s own words point out that he would be counted among the critics.

On February 10, 1993, Jackson sat down for a live interview with daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey at his Neverland ranch. The interview was a world exclusive, reaching 90 million people around the globe and setting a record for television’s most-watched interview.

The topics were wide-ranging and improvised. Jackson reportedly had no access to the questions beforehand.

The two covered his family and childhood, his hits, and the record-breaking ascension that followed. But much of the conversation, from beginning to end, focused on clarifying the rumors that followed the elusive superstar, including whether he would okay a white person playing him.

At the time, Winfrey pointed out, a rumor had been going around that Jackson wanted a white boy to play him in a Pepsi commercial. Winfrey asked him about it, and Jackson, gasping and shaking his head, had this to say:

That is so stupid. That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy. I mean why? Number one, it’s my face as a child in the commercial. Me when I was little. Why would I want a white child to play me? I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride in who I am and dignity.

Jackson objected, adamantly, with a response that echoed the 1968 black power anthem "Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud," by his idol James Brown.

So why did anyone think it was okay to insinuate that Jackson would have accepted being played by a white actor then? And, more importantly, why does the idea still have any traction today, more than two decades later, despite Jackson’s wishes?

Michael Jackson’s skin color changed over time

Michael Jackson's changing skin color over time: 1975, 1983, 2009
Michael Jackson's changing look over time: 1975, 1983, 2009.
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Even if rumors stretch the limits of the imagination, there's a reason we give them the benefit of the doubt. Over the course of Jackson’s then 25-year career, his music, fashion, and dance moves weren't the only things that had changed. His skin color had, too.

In fact, that’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the exact moment in Jackson’s life Fiennes has been cast to play. The obvious historical marker for the movie is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Jackson’s personal history also matters here.

By the mid-1980s, the black man who once sported a solid brown complexion had suddenly, almost out of nowhere, emerged in the public eye with a remarkably different skin tone. So even by 1993, let alone 2001, Jackson's skin was much lighter than it had been in his youth. His skin was the same tone as someone who would be commonly identified as white, which is the only thing that could make Fiennes's casting even remotely plausible.

Over time, people scrutinized Jackson’s racial identity

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones at the 1984 Grammys.
Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones at the 1984 Grammys.
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As Fiennes put it in his interview with ET, Jackson was "closer to [Fiennes's] color than his original color."

But race is more than matching skin tones. And that fact is one of the reasons the changes to Jackson's skin color had some people questioning the authenticity of his racial identity.

Skeptics weren’t just the general public. Some of Jackson's closest collaborators were counted among them, including famed producer Quincy Jones.

The two worked together on the first three albums of Jackson’s solo career — including the legendary Thriller, which was nominated for 12 Grammys in 1984, an all-time record that still holds to this day. And during this time, from 1979 to the late 1980s, Jones was a witness to the changes in Jackson’s skin color.

Meanwhile, in 1986, Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a chronic skin condition that causes the loss of skin pigmentation.

However, in a 2009 interview with Details following Jackson’s death, Jones explained he had a different hypothesis. Not only did he not believe Jackson’s medical diagnosis, he also suggested that the transformation had more to do with a change in how Jackson valued his racial identity.

"It’s ridiculous man! Chemical peels and all of it," he said. "And I don’t understand it. But he obviously didn’t want to be black."

Over the years, Jackson underwent various plastic surgeries to alter his appearance. Dr. Wallace Goldstein, who worked with Jackson in the 1990s, told People magazine that Jackson had 10 to 12 surgeries over two years.

But it took an autopsy to confirm that Jackson had no control over the change in his skin color: He did, in fact, have vitiligo.

Even with this information, why, for instance, did Jones think the change in Jackson’s skin color correlated with a change in how Jackson viewed his racial identity? Well, it has everything to do with how skin color is used to construct racial identities and how racial identities are ranked in a hierarchy.

Race is not (biologically) real, but there are really specific ways it is socially constructed

To be clear, race, as we know it, is not real. That is to say, racial identities are not biological. There is no race gene.

Instead, real characteristics about us like our skin tone, our hair, our facial features, and our family histories have since the late 18th century been used together to place human beings in distinct racial categories for social and political reasons.

The fact that racial categories have changed over the course of human history should give you a clue that race isn’t set in stone.

Nonetheless, there are some general rules people use to construct racial identities. And one of the most salient ways people have categorized other people is based on their physical features, including their skin color.

People with lighter, fairer skin are considered racially white. People with darker brown skin are generally considered black.

Entire institutions, like education and housing, have been built to give and deny people access to opportunities based on something as simple as skin color.

Hence, one of the other factors that also bind together people of the same racial identity is a shared history of oppression.

And that history ends up being important when race doesn't follow its own rules — which happens quite often, with Jackson's changing skin color as an example.

Not everyone of the same race has the same skin color. It’s one of the reasons for this awkward exchange between Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning and Fusion vlogger Jay Smooth. Smooth and Giles are both black. But because of Smooth’s light skin color, Giles didn’t assume him to be. Whoops!

So what does all this mean?

  • People who have matching skin tones don't necessarily have matching racial identities.
  • People with the same racial identity don't have the same complexion.
  • Race isn't skin deep.
  • Racial identities are marked by power inequalities.

The result: Fiennes’s casting looks less like an imitation of Jackson and more like a white man's egregious occupation of a black identity that is not his own. And to add insult to injury, the purpose is nothing more than a few laughs.

So does it matter if Fiennes is "black or white"? Yes.

Adding to all of this is the memory of one of Jackson’s most famous singles around race, his 1991 hit "Black or White." Since its release, the song has often been characterized as a "racial harmony" anthem.

But this is the thing about harmonies: None of the notes replace any of the others; instead, they build on the differences between them.

When Fiennes, who is white, plays Jackson, who is black, those differences aren’t being appreciated. Instead, they’re being erased.

So while it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white for Jackson to love you, it absolutely matters if you’re black or white when you’re portraying the late superstar.

Socially, this is based on the simple fact that a white actor playing the part of a black entertainer, even when their complexions are similar shades, is just another case of cinematic whitewashing, where a role that should and could have been played by a black actor is given to a white actor instead.

There are plenty of Hollywood actors who are black with lighter complexions — among them, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams
There are plenty of Hollywood actors who are black with lighter complexions — among them, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams.
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But it's also, more simply, based on the fact that Jackson, by his own words, was a black man who would never have approved of Fiennes playing him.