Thursday, 28 January 2016

That Michael Jackson...

As I walked to the tube this morning, I discovered that the whole of Archway Road had been closed to traffic due to an "incident." A brief chat to my friend who runs the coffee stand ascertained that the "incident" was, somewhat predictably, someone jumping from Archway Bridge, known in these parts as Suicide Bridge. Despite the local council's desperate attempts to prevent people from being able to jump from the edge, it remains a Mecca for those who are struggling with life. The Archway Road towards Archway itself runs through a gully, which means, by mid way up, it's about thirty metres below Hornsey Lane, which passes above via an old metal bridge. Those who jump assume if the fall onto Tarmac doesn't get them, then a passing car will...

It's a nasty business. Whereas I have a great deal of compassion for those who become so depressed they want to end it all, the greatest chunk of my sympathy rests with the drivers and pedestrians on the A1 underneath who have to deal with the (for want of a better phrase) fall out. It's incredibly sad.
Speaking of fall out, I've seen that newspapers this morning are filled with the news that posh British (white) actor, Joseph Feinnes has been cast to play Michael Jackson in a crazy sounding road movie set at the time of 911. People are up in arms about the concept of a white man playing a black legend.

Here's my take. The film is set in 2001, when Michael Jackson was arguably at his most extreme when it came to skin peels and bleaches, plastic surgery and weird behaviour. Michael Jackson did everything he could to appear white. He may have been a hugely proud black man, but, if he was, from about 1982 onwards, he never told his face. So from a purely aesthetic perspective, I sort of feel that it would be easier for a white man to pull off the role...

I have a feeling we need to be a little more consistent in the way we respond to casting decisions of this nature. Two years ago, a straight man was cast in the role of Alan Turing, a man revered by my community. Benedict Cumberbatch will surely never know how it feels to be a gay man - particularly not one who was chemically castrated - but he won awards for his acting, because, when it comes to gay characters, the world is happy to acknowledge that acting is pretending.

Of course the more subtle, or convenient argument against casting gay as gay, is that gay people may feel differently, and act differently, but they don't LOOK differently to straight people, and therefore, it ought to be easier for a straight man to impersonate a gay one. The continuation of this argument is that using prosthetics to make a white man appear black is gruesomely insulting. I agree. But Jackson didn't look black.

Then we must look to other casting decisions which, though hugely insulting to certain cultures, do not create headline news. About ten years ago I worked in the casting department on the film Brick Lane. We did an enormous amount of outreach work in the Bengali community searching for a young lad to play a radicalised Muslim. In the end, despite our hard work, the producers cast a mixed race Irish/ Indian Hindu to play the role. Did Hollywood go mad? No. He looked right... Apparently.

In 1999, I worked on a production of Madam Butterfly. Our USP was that we had an "authentic" Butterfly in the lead role. As we all know, Madam Butterfly is a Japanese woman. Our Butterfly was Chinese. The audience lapped her up. They thought she was amazing. She was. But, from a Japanese perspective, I'm sure she was about as inauthentic as Feinnes playing Jackson promises to be. The opera singer in question paid no attention to Japanese culture. She just sang the words beautifully and shuffled around in a kimono emoting wildly.

Adrian Leicester played Henry V in 2003 to great critical acclaim. The real Henry V, of course, could be called many things, but black isn't one of them. I totally applaud Leicester being cast in this role. But colour blind casting has to work all ways. If an actor puts enough work into his characterisation to make her performance feel authentic, then I don't have an issue with it.

I'll end on one final point. On another film I worked on, a certain black actor, who will remain nameless, came into audition to play the role of a black man in the film, and said in his casting that he wasn't prepared to "black up" for a role. He wanted to play the film's lead because he didn't see why the role shouldn't be played by a black man. He was right. There was no reason on earth why that role shouldn't have been played by a black person other than that it had already been given to someone else! As we move into a world where producers and directors are rightly encouraged to think out of the coloured box when it comes to casting, it's worth remembering that someone still has to play the black roles, and if we won't allow that to be white people, where on earth has the logic disappeared to?

There's not a lot to say about rehearsals today, other than that we were there and they happened. We were interviewed by a charming journalist and I continued to orchestrate music, getting a little irritated at the sheer number of interruptions... There was a very surreal moment when I tried to escape distraction and sat working under headphones in the kitchen of our rehearsal space. I could hear two separate rehearsals taking place, both involving our music, which got louder and quieter as various doors were opened and closed. It was most peculiar!


I came home this evening and worked until 10.30pm. Now I watch Ru Paul. Can I get an amen?!

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