The casting of a white man as Michael Jackson in a TV series set in 2001 is more than unnerving. It is actually a complete contradiction of who MJ was in 2001 and throughout his life. The year 2001 was a year, that if you look and listen to Jackson himself, he was nothing but a black man ringing the alarm about racism in the music industry. The industry was shaken by his outing of racist practices pertaining to black artists and, in a way, retaliated with MJ once again being portrayed as a druggie whose accusations were the rantings indicative of an addict and by 2003, an accused child molester. The latter, if you research the charges, the district attorney’s office, the witnesses and the testimony of others, was nothing more than an aberration of his character and a clear attempt to permanently tarnish his legacy. It was, if you will, the beginning of a very tragic ending. Still, it wasn’t the whole picture.
In July of 2001, Jackson spoke to an audience at a conference sponsored by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. He was blatant in telling his truth about the racism that he and other black artists face. He told how he was viewed as a threat for having broken the records of Elvis and The Beatles. These records he not only broke, but he also bought and retained ownership of in the late 1980’s. To be honest, Michael Jackson has always been viewed as the least threatening black man in entertainment. On the surface, he was, but it was all imagery. He knew how to generate mass appeal. He was tactful in how he created his image because having the best selling record of all time was something he avowed to himself when Off The Wall did not generate the type of acknowledgment he thought it deserved. Jackson was a phenomenal talent, but he also was a very skillful businessman who, in his black skin, maneuvered the best deal ever in the history of American music when he bought into the Sony/ATV catalogs. He knew this was the reason they came after him. He knew it and he said it.
In a moment of total unfettered blackness, Michael Jackson said before the National Action Network audience, “I know my race. I just look in the mirror. I know I’m black.” It was pride, personified. It was also one of many statements Jackson had made affirming and reaffirming his position in this world as a black man.
It isn’t hard to find evidence of this. Google “MJ and racism” and you will find at every speech, interview, and opportunity he had, Michael Jackson said, “I am black.” He said it and he meant it. You cannot ignore that, still Hollywood is choosing to do so. They are “whitesplaining” who he was and Columbusing his legacy. Essentially, they are deliberately choosing to ignore who he was and distort the truth based solely upon the depigmentation of his skin due to the skin disorder vitiligo. Jackson had been plagued with it the majority of his life. If you want evidence, look at some photos in the Motown archives, one can see its beginnings on his fingers and hands at the age of 11. Still, Hollywood has decided that they, alone, will define and explain MJ’s blackness in a way that is comfortable for them and concealing the truth about who he really was.
So, who was Michael Jackson?
Michael Jackson was a black man who was born in one of the most black populated cities in the midwest, Gary, Indiana. He was a black man who has helped hundreds of black students attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) through a United Negro College Fund scholarship bearing his name. He was a black man who reportedly made the single biggest financial contribution to the 1995 Million Man March. He was a black man who has an honorary doctorate from my alma mater, Fisk University, an HBCU. He was a black man who wrote a song to raise money for famine relief in Africa in 1985 and 20 years later, he did the same to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina who were disproportionately black.
Michael Jackson was a black man who dated black women, like Stephanie Mills, but respected their privacy enough to not place their business in the press and make them vulnerable to the ridicule he often suffered. He was a black man who supported the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and was friends with Nelson Mandela. He was a black man who hired the Fruit of Islam to provide security for his family and advise him on certain issues. He was a black man who has had black children visit Neverland regularly, and was never accused of anything inappropriate or sexual.
Remember how his friend Elizabeth Taylor, who will also be portrayed in this series, played Cleopatra, a black woman? MJ was a black man who “fixed” that with his video for “Remember The Time,” which was set in ancient Egypt where Nefertiti and Ramses were black, as were the rest of those who were cast, including the director, John Singleton. He was a black man who shot a “short film” in Brazil with Spike Lee that highlighted the existence of black Brazilians. MJ was a black man who paid for the funeral of David Ruffin of the Temptations, one of his idols. He was a black man who, upon purchasing his massive catalog of music, gave back to Rock & Roll pioneer Little Richard the ownership of the music that had been stolen from him. Like many of us, Michael Jackson was a black man who cried when president Obama was elected and is said to have explained to his children why it was so important and something he was told would never come to be in his lifetime. In the words of another of his idol’s, James Brown, Michael Jackson was a black man who was unafraid in his actions and in his speech to say out loud “I’m black and I’m proud.”
Who he was cannot be erased by the many attempts to rob him of his character and dignity. They tried to do it while he was alive and now, in death, they are trying to rob him of his identity with this show and that cannot be overlooked.
There is no “playing black.” Even Jackson, himself thought it was “stupid” to cast a white actor to play him and admitted as much in an interview with Oprah in 1993. If Joseph Fiennes is an actor of merit, he will do his research on the “character” he has been chosen to play. If he does, he will see MJ as he really was and, hopefully, realize that he cannot play this role. It’s not an actor’s biggest challenge, it is a fabrication of the truth and quite possibly one final attempt to paint Michael Jackson not as the “King of Pop,” but as someone who was a lesser than human freak of nature. I am inclined to agree with Reverend Al, who at MJ’s memorial service, said unto his children, “Wasn’t nothing strange about your Daddy. It was strange what your Daddy had to deal with. But he dealt with it –He dealt with it anyway.” And it seems that even seven years after his passing, he still is dealing with it when he really shouldn’t have to.