Following the controversial casting of white actor Joseph Fiennes as pop legend Michael Jackson in the upcoming Sky Arts TV comedy Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, fans have uncovered a 1993 interview between Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, in which he balks at the idea of having a white actor portray him as a child on screen.
Around the 23:48 mark, Winfrey begins asking Jackson to clarify the media’s most persistent rumors about him, including his purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones (“Where am I gonna put some bones?” he laughs), before asking him whether the “recent” stories of him wanting to cast a white child actor to play his young self in a Pepsi commercial were true.
“That is so stupid,” Jackson immediately responds. “That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard… 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 a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. That’s like you [Oprah] wanting an oriental [sic] person to play you as a child. Does that make sense?”
“No,” Winfrey replies.
“So, please, people stop believing these horrifying stories,” Jackson concludes.
At that, Winfrey presses on about why Jackson’s skin color has changed from the time he was a child, and whether this reflects a change in his perspective on his own racial identity. “The fact that the color of your skin is obviously different than it was when you were younger… has caused a great deal of speculation,” she says. “Is your skin lighter because you don’t like being black?”
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Jackson visibly bristles at the question, explaining he has vitiligo, a skin disease that destroys pigmentation. “It’s something that I cannot help, but when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me,” he says, his voice shaking. “It’s a problem for me. I can’t control it, okay?” Watch the segment below:
In fact, the singer had spoken throughout his life about his racial identity despite the lightening of his skin. He gave a deposition in 1996 explaining his point of view. “I’m a black American,” Jackson said at the time, “and I’m proud of it.”
Still, Fiennes’ casting isn’t just controversial for being seen as whitewashing a real-life, black American figure, but also because the project’s comic nature has been touted as the reasoning behind the questionable choice. Comedy sketches have previously used white actors to impersonate Jackson; during Amy Poehler’s run on Saturday Night Live, she donned a wig and layers of makeup to do so. Though details about Elizabeth, Marlon & Brando haven’t revealed exactly how Jackson will be portrayed, Fiennes told ET Canada that “it’s a tongue-in-cheek, fun, light look at three wonderful characters that we know — Michael Jackson, Liz Taylor, and Marlon Brando — and they go on a road trip together.”
The actor also explained in an interview to Entertainment Tonight that he was “shocked as you may be” by the casting, but defends the part. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color,” Fiennes said. “It’s a light comedy look. It’s not in any way malicious. It’s actually endearing.”