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Casting of Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in British TV comedy sparks controversy

Joseph Fiennes shot to fame playing the Bard in the Oscar-winning film "Shakespeare in Love," but the news that he has been cast to play another great entertainer, Michael Jackson, has sparked controversy. 

The British actor will star as the late pop star in "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon," set to debut later this year on the British network.  

The half-hour comedy special is inspired by the (possibly apocryphal) tale of a road trip shared by Jackson, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in the aftermath of 9/11, when air travel was temporarily halted across the country. "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon" co-stars Brian Cox as Brando and Stockard Channing as Taylor. 

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The news arrives at a time of heightened sensitivity around the issue of race in popular culture prompted by the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations. For the second year in a row, all 20 performers nominated in the acting categories are white, and very few people of color were nominated in other fields. The negative attention — including a hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — has spurred the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to institute sweeping changes to its voting rules.

“A White Actor will play MJ. Because we aren't whitewashed enough in Hollywood, apparently,” read a tweet Wednesday from BET that was echoed by others on social media.

Actress Angela Bassett weighed in more humorously with a tweet suggesting she should play Taylor: “BRILLIANT! Ordered my violet contacts & bathed in White Diamonds this morning, so I'm READY! Let's do this! xo! Ang”

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Sky Arts defended the decision to cast a white actor as the African American Jackson:

"'Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon' is a Sky Arts comedy which takes a lighthearted look at a reportedly true event; Joseph Fiennes is cast as Michael Jackson. It is part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history. Sky Arts gives producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set."

A representative for Fiennes did not respond to a request for comment, but the actor told "ET" that Jackson, whose dramatically altered looks were a source of constant tabloid speculation in his later years, "was probably closer to my color than his original color."

"I'm a white, middle-class guy from London. I'm as shocked as you may be," said the actor, who is the younger brother of actor Ralph Fiennes.

Cross-racial casting has a long history in Hollywood, where it was once the norm for, say, Mickey Rooney to play a Japanese character, as he did in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

More than 50 years later, current examples of cross-racial casting aren't exactly hard to find. This week social media was abuzz over the news that blond-haired, blue-eyed Brit Charlie Hunnam had been cast as the lead in "American Drug Lord," a film about Mexican American drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villarreal 

Last year, director Cameron Crowe caught flak for casting Emma Stone as a woman of Hawaiian and Asian descent in his box office flop "Aloha." And a few years back, actor Max Minghella played the Indian American Divya Narendra in "The Social Network." The casting decision was one of many criticized in an episode of Aziz Ansari's acclaimed Netflix series, "Master of None," devoted to the often problematic representation of South Asians in Western popular culture.

Producers of "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon" can hardly claim ignorance of the issue of inclusiveness, which is also in the headlines across the pond. Last week, actor Idris Elba gave a stirring speech in the House of Commons about the need for greater diversity in British television.

The actor, whose parents come from Sierra Leone and Ghana, stars in the detective series "Luther." In what many see as the most notable snub this year of a person of color, he was passed over for an Oscar nomination for his chilling portrayal of a West African warlord in "Beasts of No Nation."

"Although there’s a lot of reality TV, TV hasn’t caught up with reality," Elba said before members of Parliament. "Change is coming, but it’s taking its sweet time."

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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