The recent news that European cable network Sky will not be airing “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon”, the highly controversial episode of the Urban Myths comedy series, came as no surprise.
After all, the episode features Joseph Fiennes – a white actor best known for his portrayal of Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love – in the role of Michael Jackson, a questionable move bound to ruffle more than a few feathers.
Still, even as I completely understand Sky’s decision not to air the episode, I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, which leads me to consider issues relating to whitewashing in pop culture and good taste versus censorship.
Like virtually everyone else, my initial reaction upon hearing about Fiennes being cast as Jackson was, “Why on Earth would you want to do that?! That’s a terrible idea!”, a response only further reinforced upon seeing the trailer.
Even so, when I found out that “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” was being pulled, I was immediately disappointed.
This wasn’t because I have any real interest in actually watching the Urban Myths episode (I don’t), but because I strongly believe that whatever the merits of the show – or any work of pop culture, for that matter – we’re on dangerous ground the minute we begin to censor our arts and entertainment, for reasons I’ll get to a little later.
ELEPHANT(S) IN THE ROOM
That’s because, when it comes to discussing Urban Myths, we can’t really go any further without addressing the two biggest elephants out of the herd presently in the room, namely the whitewashing issue, as well as the impact of the show on Jackson’s surviving family.
In terms of whitewashing, there’s really no defence that can be made here – casting a white British actor to play an African American character is at best unthinkingly insensitive, and at worst, borderline racist, in essence a return to the wildly offensive tradition of blackface make-up.
Right now, you might be thinking of Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Kirk Lazarus from 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, an eccentric method actor who dons extensive make-up to play the part of a black soldier, a role which was received free of controversy and actually garnered Downey Jr critical acclaim.
However, the difference here is that Tropic Thunder directly acknowledged and ridiculed the fallacy of Lazarus’ actions by highlighting the inherent offensiveness of a white person masquerading as an African American in a way that Urban Myths can’t, given that Fiennes’ Jackson is meant to be taken literally by the audience as a person of colour.
Tropic Thunder also contains an implicit acknowledgement that part of what makes whitewashing so offensive – apart from the way that it evokes and propagates negative historical stereotypes and appropriates the cultural heritage of black Americans – is that it robs members of that race the opportunity to represent themselves on screen, in this case, a black comedian who could have filled the Jackson role.
At a time when race relations are at at their most volatile and the outcry over white actors playing non-white characters has never been louder (see: Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, amongst others), it’s frankly baffling that the creative team behind Urban Myths seriously thought this casting decision was a good idea.
Whilst I genuinely believe those involved are guilty of breathtaking carelessness rather than outright racism, I still completely sympathise with anyone who is offended by the idea of Fiennes in this role.
On the subject of offend parties, that brings me to my second major red flag: Jackson’s family.
As you’d expect, they are none too keen on MJ’s depiction in Urban Myths, with Jackson’s daughter Paris going so far as to say:
“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.”
That’s pretty understandable. After all, whilst Jackson might have been an eccentric guy with a…complicated personal life, he was still part of a family who loved him. It’s therefore easy to see how they would feel that his legacy is being treated with poor taste in Urban Myths, and just as easy to feel pity for them being confronted by this undeniably questionable portrayal of their loved one.
So at this point, it’s pretty clear that there are very legitimate objections to “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” being screened, especially given its capacity to offend.
But that’s the point: without meaning to sound pretentious here, one of the many roles of art – even pop art – is to provoke, and sometimes even to offend.
TASTE VS CENSORSHIP
Let me make it clear that I’m drawing a line here between content that is merely potentially offensive as opposed to material that constitutes hate speech, the latter of which is never excusable.
I think that it’s fair to say that the Urban Myths episode – however unpleasant you find the content – falls outside the sphere of hate speech, landing squarely in the realms of poor taste.
And it’s here that my argument for screening “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” lies, because I’m adamant that we should never allow matters of taste to become subjects of censorship.
No matter how unpleasant the show may be, if we don’t allow it to be seen, we deprive ourselves of the ability to be upset by it and then in turn to speak out about it, and this in turn censors the potential debate over the issues it raises.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE CENSOR THE DEBATE?
Not to go off on a rant (he said, going off on a rant), but if there’s a major problem with the world we live in right now, it’s that we’re all living in online echo chambers that reiterate our own point of view about just about everything.
Whenever that point of view is challenged, we respond by going on the offensive, trying to eradicate the other person’s point of view, rather than engaging with them and trying to persuade them of ours.
That’s exactly what occurs whenever we censor something like Urban Myths (and before it’s even been viewed in full, at that!) – we shut down the right of expression of those who created the show and ultimately those who might have watched it (which represents a whole ‘nother problem), and rob ourselves of the chance to publicly challenge them on the subject matter we find so offensive.
WHY THE URBAN MYTHS EPISODE SHOULD BE SCREENED
Consequently, as callous as it sounds, no matter how unpalatable something like “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” might be – in this instance due to whitewashing and issues relating to poor taste and insensitivity – it’s vital that it be screened.
Unless this happens, any potential discussion of these issues (and the hurt they can cause) has been censored, and that may well be the most offensive thing of all…
That’s a wrap for this edition of Soapbox – now it’s your chance to join in! Agree? Disagree?