European cable network Sky recently announced that it won’t be airing “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon”, the controversial upcoming episode of the Urban Myths comedy series – and I can’t say I’m surprised. 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 bit of casting that was always bound to ruffle a few feathers.
And yet, while I completely understand Sky’s decision not to air the episode, I’m not sure I agree with it. That’s because, while I’m against the kind of whitewashing that Fiennes-as-Jackson represents, I’m also a strong believer that art should be free to push boundaries and, as part of that, to offend some viewers. Ultimately, the Urban Myths furore has me questioning what’s more important: promoting progressive storytelling or fighting censorship.
Make no mistake: “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” is in very poor taste
Let me clear, though: like virtually everyone else, my initial reaction to the news that Fiennes was set to play Jackson in Urban Myths was “Seriously? What are they thinking? That’s a terrible idea!”. And to some extent, my feelings haven’t changed; casting a white actor to play a Black man is a pretty big miscalculation that (intentionally or not) contributes to Hollywood’s troubling history of “blacking up” white actors or whitewashing non-white roles entirely. It is, in many ways, indefensible.
What’s more, the timing is terrible. Race relations have arguably never been are more volatile than they are right now, and considering the recent outcry over white actors playing non-white characters (see Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange or Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell), it’s frankly baffling that the creative team behind Urban Myths seriously thought this casting decision was a good idea.
Then there’s Jackson’s family to think about. As you’d expect, they’re not exactly keen on the idea of Fiennes playing Jackson, with Jackson’s daughter Paris commenting “I’m so incredibly offended by it… and it honestly makes me want to vomit.” I can’t say that I blame her, either. Jackson was a decidedly eccentric guy who left behind a complicated legacy, to say the least. Yet he was still part of a family who loved him, and it’s easy to see why they’d object to Urban Myths portraying Jackson in such a questionable way.
Despite all this, though – despite the whitewashing and the insensitivity involved – when I heard that Sky had pulled “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon”, I was still profoundly disappointed. Why? Because I firmly believe we’re on shakey ground the minute we begin to censor our arts and entertainment, no matter how unpalatable the subject matter involved may be. Whenever we do this, we’re missing the point of great art (especially pop art): to break barriers in order to provoke, challenge and sometimes even to offend.
Censoring art shuts down the conversation
And that’s just it: no matter how repulsed you are by “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon”, there’s no denying its provocative power; it’s almost tailor made to inspire debate over what is and isn’t in good taste, and the role race should play when casting films and TV shows.
As such, by not airing this Urban Myths episode, Sky isn’t simply censoring the arts, they’re shutting down the debate itself. The upshot of this is that those who are upset by the content of “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” can’t publicly engage with the show’s creators and supporters, and nobody involved – those who’re offended and those who aren’t, alike – has the opportunity to learn anything new or rethink their worldview.
When that happens, freedom of thought itself is being censored – and that’s the most offensive thing of all…