KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The practice of blackface is as old as entertainment itself white - actors putting black makeup on their faces and acting like buffoons. British broadcaster Sky TV has been accused of a kind of blackface by hiring a white actor to play Michael Jackson. After that, Sky decided not to broadcast the episode, and NPR's Eric Deggans is here with us to talk about the controversy. Hi there, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
MCEVERS: So this was supposed to be an episode of the satirical show "Urban Myths." What was it supposed to be about?
DEGGANS: So there's this (laughter) supposed road trip that Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando took right after 9/11 to get out of New York City in a rental car...
DEGGANS: ...And this episode was going to dramatize that. And they hired Joseph Fiennes to - a white man - to play Michael Jackson. There was controversy when the casting was announced, but the trailer dropped earlier this week and that's when it really exploded, especially on social media. Now, the actor himself also thought it was a little weird that he got cast, and so he spoke to The Guardian. Let's listen to him.
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JOSEPH FIENNES: I've said it before, I was shocked that they would come to me for the casting. You have to ask them as to why they would want to cast me. I felt this was a wonderful challenge. I read the script, it's very funny.
MCEVERS: And this is Joseph Fiennes of, like, "Shakespeare In Love" Joseph Fiennes, right?
DEGGANS: (Laughter) I know.
MCEVERS: I don't see Michael Jackson here.
DEGGANS: Well, you know, you can judge for yourself. The trailer is out there, and the criticism really took off when Michael's daughter Paris and a Jackson cousin kind of complained on Twitter, and it really kind of exploded. One of the things that Paris tweeted, for example, she said, quote, "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." (Laughter) So...
MCEVERS: Why do you think they chose him to do this? I mean, he says he doesn't really know why, but any sense of, like, why the producers chose him to play this role?
DEGGANS: You know, maybe because they're a British company that did this, they didn't appreciate how Americans feel about Michael Jackson and particularly about race and Michael Jackson. You know, he had a very tangled history involving his ethnicity and his appearance. And also, you know, he died in a way that fans - left fans, you know, bereft, and they're still coping with that in some ways. And, you know, there were a lot of icons in this car (laughter) that they decided to make fun of, so maybe all of that was a problem.
MCEVERS: I mean, you've written a book about race and media, right? I mean, this is a question that comes up a lot - who gets to play whom? Is a white actor playing a black character ever OK?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, white people playing black people has so often been used as a tool of oppression, right? It's not just that they're playing black people, it's that they're playing infantilized black people, or they're playing black people who are overly sexual or morally deficient in some way and they're the other, you know? And it can happen in any ethnicity, we've seen this happen with Asian characters and with Latino characters as well. In a statement, a company spokesman from Sky said, quote, "we set out to take a lighthearted look at reportedly true events and never intended to cause any offense." So it was a satirical show, they tried to be funny, but it's hard to joke about this stuff. And, you know, actors of color don't have a lot of great roles anyway...
DEGGANS: ...So it looks weird to hand a plum role to a white guy when conceivably they could have cast a light-skin African-American or a light-skin person of color to play that role.
MCEVERS: I mean, looking at the still from this trailer, I mean, it is weird, right? Because Joseph Fiennes isn't necessarily in blackface...
MCEVERS: ...I mean, because Michael Jackson was so fair.
DEGGANS: It's kind of like whiteface, right?
MCEVERS: Right, it's - yeah, but so, what's going on?
DEGGANS: Well, Michael had his own tangled history with race throughout his career. His skin lightened and he said he had a skin condition. Other people accused him of having plastic surgery to alter his looks. And to take - have a white actor cast as him seemed a nod to that in a way that was needlessly cruel. And we're talking about celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, who are not around to defend themselves. So maybe there was just the sense that people felt they were taking a shot at celebrities who couldn't defend themselves because they're not with us anymore.
MCEVERS: NPR's Eric Deggans, thanks.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
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