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(Reuters) - British actor Joseph Fiennes has been cast as iconic African-American pop star Michael Jackson in an upcoming TV comedy, provoking scorn on social media on Wednesday and fueling a controversy in the entertainment industry over opportunities for black artists.
Fiennes, who is white, will play the late "King of Pop" in an apparently real-life story for Britain's satellite TV channel Sky Arts about a road trip across the United States the singer is said to have taken in 2001 with movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Sky Arts said in a statement on Wednesday that the 30-minute comedy, called "Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon," 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."
Jackson, who had the medical condition vitiligo that lightened the color of his skin, died in June 2009 at the age of 50 after an overdose of the sedative propofol.
News of the casting decision came two weeks after the omission of any actors of color from the 2016 Oscar nominations for a second year that led Will Smith and Spike Lee to shun the Oscar ceremony in February and Oscar organizers to bring more women and people of color into their ranks.
Stereo Williams, an entertainment writer for The Daily Beast, said the casting of Fiennes was a "symptom of Hollywood's deep-seated race problem."
"They seriously couldn't find a black actor to play Michael Jackson?" tweeted U.S. civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"So Joseph Fiennes (A WHITE DUDE!) is gunna play Michael Jackson... I say Denzel Washington plays Elvis in the next movie just to be fair," said @nicomadden on Twitter.
So-called "whitewashing" has become a contentious issue in the movie and TV industry, highlighted by the casting of Emma Stone as a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in the 2015 film "Aloha," and the choice of white British actor Charlie Hunnam to play a Mexican-American drug lord in an upcoming Hollywood movie.
"Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon" will also star Stockard Channing as Jackson's late, close friend Taylor, and Brian Cox as Brando. It is expected to be broadcast sometime in 2016.
Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Marguerita Choy