'Urban Myths' Pulls Controversial Michael Jackson Episode, But Why Did It Even Get This Far To Begin With?

Just a few days ago, Sky Arts served up the first trailer for Urban Myths, a comedy series dramatizing legends about famous people. While the show features lots of interesting casting, including Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones as Hitler and Eddie Marsan as Bob Dylan, the one that got the most attention was Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson. Predictably, people were pissed. 

Predictably, that is, to everyone except for the people involved with that production. Following social media backlash, multiple petitions, and very harsh words from the late musician's daughter, Paris Jackson, Sky has finally realized that maybe casting a white Englishman to play a black American wasn't such a hot idea after all and announced that they're pulling the episode altogether. 

The Urban Myths Michael Jackson episode was to follow Jackson on a road trip with Elizabeth Taylor (Stockard Channing) and Marlon Brando (Brian Cox) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Fiennes' casting was first announced a year ago and immediately attracted widespread criticism. But the Urban Myths team apparently paid the controversy no mind and went on with making the episode. It wasn't until this week that they finally got the message.

Sky released the following statement (via THR) announcing that they'd decided to pull the episode:

We have taken the decision not to broadcast Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, a half-hour episode from the Sky Arts Urban Myths series, in light of the concerns expressed by Michael Jackson's immediate family. We set out to take a lighthearted look at reportedly true events and never intended to cause any offense. Joseph Fiennes fully supports our decision.

The original Urban Myths trailer showing Fiennes as Jackson appears to have been yanked from official channels replaced with a version that omits any mention of the "Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon" episode. (You can watch the Fiennes-free version of the trailer here.)

Paris Jackson's Thoughts

Earlier this week, Paris Jackson had made her feelings on the trailer crystal clear.

 Why Did It Even Get This Far to Begin With?

It's a good thing Sky decided to pull the episode. But it's baffling and frankly infuriating that this controversy has somehow taken them by surprise. First, because it should be obvious by now that casting a white guy as a black person will get you into trouble. This isn't something someone should have to have explained to them in the year 2017. (Or 2016, when the project was first announced.)

And second, because even if they didn't know better to begin with — and clearly they didn't — plenty of people have tried to explain it to them over the past several months. That includes those who covered the story (like our own Ethan Anderton) and those who started petitions. Keep in mind, too, that this isn't just a slip-up made by an especially oblivious person. Multiple people had to sign off on this casting over the course of several months in order to make it a reality.

Naturally, there have been attempts to defend the casting. Director Ben Palmer told The Guardian, "We were casting Michael Jackson in 2001, and that obviously is a challenge in terms of the physical resemblance." And, besides, he continued, Fiennes is really good in it:

"We were really looking for the performance that could unlock the spirit, and we really think Joe Fiennes has done that. He's given a really sweet, nuanced, characterful performance. It's a really lovely, sweet film. I'm really looking forward to seeing how people react once they've actually seen it."

It's true that Jackson had pale skin due to vitiligo, a condition that causes skin to lose its pigment. But there's more to race than skin color, and there's more to casting than finding someone who matches a foundation shade, and whether or not Fiennes is talented is beside the point. While the Urban Myths controversy is its own thing, the tone-deaf rationale and weak excuses are frustratingly familiar by now.

The "physical resemblance" explanation was trotted out when Emma Stone was cast as a part-Asian woman in Aloha, and given an obnoxious new twist when studios tried to figure out how to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian for Ghost in the Shell. Speaking of Ghost in the Shell, the "it's a really good performance, you'll see" defense was also put out by producers of that film, again about Johansson. I'd bet if we let the Urban Myths team talk long enough, they'd get to "it was the only way to get funding" and "he was just the best person for the job" eventually.

But by casting a white man to play Jackson, they're erasing his race from his legacy and distorting his lived experiences. As outlined here, Jackson was proudly, unequivocally black. And as shown here, Jackson was adamant that he would not want a white actor to play him, calling the notion "horrifying." I'm glad that Sky was eventually able to see the error of their ways, and reversed their decision to release this episode. But I remain deeply disappointed it got this far, to begin with. At the very least, here's hoping that everyone involved has learned from their mistakes and won't be making the same ones again.