If you were offended by the first look of Michael Jackson played by Joseph Fiennes, you’re not alone.
@TheMJCast 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.— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
@TheMJCast it angers me to see how obviously intentional it was for them to be this insulting, not just towards my father, but my godmother liz as well— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
@TheMJCast where is the respect? they worked through blood sweat and tears for ages to create such profound and remarkable legacies. shameful portrayal— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
If you couldn’t deduce from the name, Paris Jackson is one of Michael Jackson’s children. She’s 18 and has two brothers, who are 19 and 14. Pop cultural relevance and scandal aside, Michael Jackson was a father. I want you to imagine for a minute how you’d be portrayed in a satirical fashion for millions to see. Now, let’s take that a step further. How would your children (real or hypothetical) feel upon seeing that representation of you?
In this dream scenario, there are nuances that add to this real life predicament — one of them largely being the representation of race of a Black musical icon by a White forgettable actor. That alone reeks of disrespect, even in a dark comedy like Urban Myths.
This is all to say that Jackson’s children are largely just that: children. Furthermore, their father was a musical legend with a life entangled in scandal punctuated with moments of hope provided by his three kids. They have a right to protect and secure those memories of him at any cost. And this is where the production of biopics, even in jest, started to take on a moral question for me:
Do celebrities’ lives become public domain, especially after death?
After the loss of so many entertainers, musicians, and high profile individuals in general last year and their impact on the rest of us, I had to wonder what their families must be thinking and feeling. In my mind, as weird as it is, I can’t help but to feel empathy for Paris Jackson. Given her reaction above, it’s hard to imagine that the production team as well as the execs over at Sky Arts got permission. Should they have? Probably. Is permission needed for things like this? Ethically I think there is an obligation to do so. Given the tone of the Urban Myths series though, I don’t think ethics were heavily involved. At what point does an estate’s involvement to the portrayal of the deceased begin?
According to California state law, such a thing exists. In 1985, California enacted The Celebrities Rights Act or Celebrity Rights Act. This act, also known as Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act grants statutory post mortem rights to the estate of a “deceased personality.” This includes, but is not limited to the following:
- that personality had been “any natural person whose name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness has commercial value at the time of his or her death”,
- any person using such personality’s “name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness on or in products, merchandise or goods” without prior consent was liable to be sued for damages and profits arising from the unauthorized use and
- such prior consent may only be given by persons to whom the personality had transferred such power by contract or trust prior to his death, or by trust or will after his death, or, where no such latter provision was made, his spouse, children, and/or grandchildren,
- but “a play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, audiovisual work, radio or television program, single and original work of art, work of political or newsworthy value, or an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of these works, shall not be considered a product, article of merchandise, good, or service if it is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary, or musical work.” - California Civil Code Section 3344.1
It’s hard to say how Jackson’s estate was handled with regard to this particular instance. However, it stands to reason that under this act, Paris Jackson and her brothers could sue for the portrayal of their father. Since this is a British production, all the above could be a moot point. At that point, ethical and legal standards don’t apply at all.
Basically, this entire situation has been fueled by emotion and coffee and I don’t think there’s a resolution other than I’d be pissed and litigious as fuck if I were Paris Jackson. Right now, all I can do is resort to my yarn wall. But please, when I become famous, if you could see that my portrayal in any sort of media is done by this guy, I’d be greatly appreciative.