Rob Moran 12 Jan 2017, 2:57 p.m.
Just over a year ago, with the fallout of #OscarsSoWhite front-and-centre of Hollywood discussions, the internet reacted with outrage to news that white British actor Joseph Fiennes would be playing pop icon Michael Jackson in an upcoming project.
That furore has reignited this week as the world gets it first look at Fiennes in the role in the trailer for the upcoming British series Urban Myths.
The show, produced by Sky Arts in the UK, includes eight episodes recreating celebrity stories that have become widely-repeated urban legends, including Cary Grant’s (Ben Chaplin) alleged love of LSD, young Adolf Hitler’s (Iwan Rheon) artistic failures, and Bob Dylan’s (Eddie Marsan) obsession with ’60s folk legend Dave Van Ronk, a story also recently mythologised in the Coen Bros award-winning Inside Llewyn Davis.
Fiennes’ episode is a 20-minute bit based on a 2011 Vanity Fair story that speculated on a frenzied cross-country road-trip that Jackson and friends Elizabeth Taylor (Stockard Channing) and Marlon Brando (Brian Cox) took in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (One of the few sources backing the insane story – which allegedly saw the trio driving from Manhattan to Ohio, with Brando begging to stop at every KFC along the way – is MJ’s old pal Corey Feldman, so take that as you will.)
The trailer shows Fiennes, sporting the singer’s trademark long locks and pork-pie hat, caked in white powder, his nose and chin mangled into a comically crude approximation of the late pop star.
As confusion over the scale of the project remains, commenters online have slammed the portrayal as “disrespectful”, while MJ’s own family have weighed in and criticised its creators.
Jackson’s daughter Paris took to Twitter to say “it honestly makes me want to vomit”, while his nephew Taj added, “Unfortunately, this is what my family has to deal with. No words could express the blatant disrespect.”
A petition to boycott “the film”, originally launched last year, has picked up over 20,000 signatures and counting in the wake of the trailer’s release.
I hope it loses every single dime of its budget. Every single dime. #UrbanMythshttps://t.co/99qCA2lkzn— Keith Powell (@KeithPowell) January 11, 2017
The most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen! “Here’s your first look at Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson”https://t.co/nPrgsskcWn— (@PXRTYSTAR) January 11, 2017
Me after seeing #JosephFiennes as Michael Jackson pic.twitter.com/t8FOdHClh7— Tammy Tam (@nubiansweet) January 11, 2017
@TheMJCast i’m so incredibly offended by it, as i’m sure plenty of people are as well, and it honestly makes me want to vomit.— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
@soledadobrien Unfortunately this is what my family has to deal with. No words could express the blatant disrespect. https://t.co/WKCiwOqPpN— Taj Jackson (@tajjackson3) January 11, 2017
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter following the initial uproar, Fiennes acknowledged the controversy but defended the casting.
“It’s not a biopic. It’s Michael in his last days when, I have to say, he did look quite frankly rather differently than when we grew up with him in the ’80s or earlier,” he said.
“The decision with the casting and the producers – I wrangled with it, I was confused and shocked at what might come my way, and I knew the sensitivity, especially to Michael’s fans and to Michael’s family.
“I think outrage is good, as long as it doesn’t get into a violent shouting match,” he added.
“These conversations are really important and they shape our industry. It’s vital to have them.”