Do You Remember … that Egypt is in Africa?
Joie: So, Willa … I was thinking about how we’re already into our third year of this blog and all the wonderful posts we’ve done and the amazing conversations we’ve had. You know, we’ve talked about so many different aspects of Michael Jackson’s artistry, from his songs and short films to his impact on an entire generation of people and his contributions to music, fashion, pop culture and humanity. And during all those conversations, there’s actually a topic we haven’t really touched on at all, and I’m amazed that we’ve overlooked it. I’m talking about Remember the Time, both the song itself as well as the short film. In all of the conversations we’ve had the past two years, I don’t think we’ve mentioned it much. Have we?
Willa: No, we haven’t, and it’s a great one to talk about! But we haven’t talked about a lot of incredible work – short films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Scream, as well as other visual art and music and dance. Not to mention the unreleased songs and films, or the classical music he composed that hasn’t even been recorded yet. He left behind a huge body of work.
Joie: So, Remember the Time is actually one of Michael’s greatest short films, in my opinion. Partly because it has such a wonderful and entertaining cast – Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson all simply shine in their roles in this video.
Willa: That’s true, and the relationships between them and the characters they play is interesting as well. For example, Iman’s character, an Egyptian queen, is married to Eddie Murphy’s character, the Pharaoh. But you get the impression she really wants Michael Jackson’s character, a magical/musical mystery man with many hidden talents. The Pharaoh realizes this and feels very threatened by it, so he orders his guards. But while they’re running around chasing this mysterious figure, he’s off having a passionate moment with the Queen in her private chambers.
This is all kind of funny if you remember that, in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy repeatedly made fun of Michael Jackson on Saturday Night Live and in his comedy routines on the Delirious tour and others, implying in not so subtle ways that Michael Jackson wasn’t “masculine” enough. But watching Remember the Time, you get the impression his “wife,” the Queen, doesn’t agree.
Joie: That’s funny, Willa. I had never made that connection before. Of course, I’ve seen those Eddie Murphy skits over and over, but I never thought about them in terms of the Remember the Time video. That’s interesting.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, they really seemed to respect each other a lot, professionally, but there was an edge to it sometimes – just like there’s some animosity between their characters in this film. And there’s definitely an edge between the magician/musician and the Queen as well. It’s presented as an illicit romance, but there’s more to it than that. The Queen demands to be entertained, and when the first two performers don’t please her, she has them executed. So then the magician/musician tries his hand, and he’s drawn to her but seems kind of angry with her too – and you can see why.
Joie: Hmm. Actually I’m not sure that I know what you mean, on either point. With Eddie Murphy, I don’t feel like there was an edge to their friendship at all. I think it seemed really genuine. Those old skits you were talking about before, Michael said once that he thought they were really funny, and he was impressed with Eddie’s singing voice when he would mimic him. So I don’t think there was an edge to it at all.
Willa: Well, you’re right – Eddie Murphy does have a wonderful voice …
Joie: And in the video, the interaction between Michael’s character and Iman’s – I don’t feel that he’s angry with her. To me, the storyline created by the video is one of lost love. They obviously share a romantic history with each other, she is surprised to see him there in the palace that she now shares with her husband the Pharaoh, and he is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) asking her if she remembers “them” – how much in love they were, what they meant to one another. I don’t see him being angry with her.
Willa: That’s funny that we see this all so differently, Joie! My feeling is that Eddie Murphy respected Michael Jackson a lot for his talent and his charisma and his massive sales, but he didn’t understand him at all. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Murphy told him once, “I love Michael, but he is strange.”
Joie: Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t give too much credence to anything Taraborrelli says.
Willa: Well, ok, but it is true that Eddie Murphy ridiculed Michael Jackson a lot in his comedy sketches. I remember seeing a skit on Saturday Night Live a long time ago where he was holding a Michael Jackson doll and basically talking about how effeminate it was. And then at the end of the skit, he pulled the pants off the doll, pointed out it didn’t have any man parts – as if dolls generally do – and said something about it being anatomically accurate. It kind of shocked me, to be honest, just how harsh it was. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it so maybe I’m remembering it as worse than it was, but as I remember it had a very ridiculing tone to it.
I think Eddie Murphy did things like that primarily because he’s a guy-guy, a masculine fellow in a very traditional sense of the word, and he mocked Michael Jackson for not conforming to that – for attempting to redefine what it means to “be a man,” as we talked about with Bad in a post last fall. But while Michael Jackson may not have been macho in the traditional sense, he had an uncanny power that he exercised in gentle ways. We see a glimpse of that in this clip from the 1989 American Music Awards:
It’s a funny clip, but it’s interesting that Eddie Murphy starts to help him with the microphone “like I was working for him or something,” and then stops himself, like it’s beneath his dignity: “Wait, what am I doing?”
But even more importantly, I think, is that they see themselves, their careers, and their cultural function in very different ways. Eddie Murphy sees himself as an entertainer, while Michael Jackson was both an entertainer and an artist – and that’s a huge difference. An entertainer tries to please his audience and give them what they want – like the entertainers who try to please the Queen in the video. And as an entertainer, I think Eddie Murphy thought Michael Jackson was “strange” for not doing that – for not just giving us what we want.
But Michael Jackson had the vision of an artist as well as an entertainer, and artists don’t always try to please us. In fact, sometimes they defy us or make us angry or uncomfortable, or even reshape our desires and force us to question what it is we really want, and why – kind of like his character does with the Queen. He doesn’t just entertain her – he unsettles her as well.
Joie: I understand what you’re trying to say, Willa. But I think it’s a little presumptuous of us to state that we know for certain how Eddie Murphy sees himself, his career or his cultural function. I think it’s much safer to say that you feel this is how he sees things, but you don’t really know that. In fact, for all we know, Eddie Murphy doesn’t even think of himself or his career in terms of his “cultural function” at all. That thought may never have even crossed his mind before. It’s simply an idea that you’re placing on him.
And I would be willing to bet that Eddie Murphy does think of himself as an artist. After all, he does have two albums under his belt and is currently working on a third. He’s provided background vocals for other artists, and sang several songs in the Shrek film franchise. Here’s a link to his new single, a reggae tune called “Red Light,” featuring Snoop Lion.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, I should state things more carefully. I don’t know how he sees himself, but based on the projects he’s done in the past, my feeling is that he’s more an entertainer than an artist. And I say that in large part because, in his work, in general, he seems eager to please his audience and not really challenge us or alter our perceptions or beliefs in any way. His comedy routines can be pretty edgy sometimes – I would say he challenges his audience more through his comedy than his music or films – but he never comes close to bringing about the kinds of deep cultural shifts Michael Jackson did. Michael Jackson challenges us constantly in so many ways – how we think about race and gender, money and power and global inequality, animals and ecosystems and the natural world, children and marriage and family relationships, as well as romance and sexuality and desire. In fact, there are times where he really forces us to question why we desire the things we do.
I see this all playing out in interesting ways in Remember the Time. Iman’s character, the Queen, is bored and fickle and cruel. She wants an entertainer who will amuse her, and when the first two entertainers don’t please her, she casually has them killed, as mentioned before. It’s presented in a comic way, but it’s still chilling.
Then Michael Jackson’s character appears, but he’s way more than just an entertainer. He doesn’t look like much when he first appears in his simple robe and sandals, and the Pharaoh kind of mocks him – just like Eddie Murphy himself mocked Michael Jackson: “And what is it you’re going to do?” But this unimposing figure has uncanny abilities – like Michael Jackson himself – and he both exceeds and defies their expectations.
First he transforms himself into an indeterminate figure who’s wearing both modern black jeans and a transparent Egyptian skirt. It’s the kind of skirt you see Egyptian figures wearing in ancient murals, and I really kind of like it, actually, but it’s not very macho in a traditional sense. But then the Pharaoh realizes that his Queen is seriously turned on by this new kind of man, and his eyes practically bug out at the sight! And soon after we see Michael Jackson’s character surrounded by a ring of dancing harem girls – not bad for a guy in a skirt …
This magician/musician also challenges them both, especially the Queen – the woman who killed his predecessors. After he transforms, he brushes off his arms and juts out his jaw like he’s going into a fight. Then he swipes his mouth with the back of his hand – just like he did in Bad before telling the street thugs that they’re “doing wrong,” and in Ghosts before telling the Mayor and villagers that they’re “doing wrong” also. So this character is far more than an entertainer trying to please his audience. It’s much more complicated than that.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And I agree with what you said before about us seeing this so differently because we really do. I believe that this one is simply mirroring the tale that the song is telling, and the Queen becomes hot and bothered when she recognizes her former lover, who is standing there asking her if she remembers the time they spent together. The King is obviously upset about this, and he decides to have him killed once he sees the connection this strange man has to his wife. As I’m fond of saying, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything always has an underlying, symbolic meaning.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie, but to me there are a lot of unsettling little details that don’t really add up if this is just a love story. Like, why does he begin this video by showing us that the Queen is a murderer? That’s not very romantic! And why does he set it up so she’s married to someone else? And why does he spend so little time with her? He actually spends a lot more time dancing with the harem girls than he does with her. That doesn’t really fit a love story either.
Joie: I don’t think he’s trying to show us that the Queen is a murderer. I just think he’s trying to show us the culture and the time period that this short film is set in! And she’s married to someone else because she’s the Queen. I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting. Would it be more romantic if he had set it at a modern-day church where he’s interrupting a wedding to ask the bride if she remembers how much in love they used to be? Maybe. And then he could have spent some time dancing with the wedding party instead of the harem girls!
Willa: But queens don’t have to be married! Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was a powerful Egyptian queen who had passionate affairs with both Julius Caesar (played by Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (played by Richard Burton) and she wasn’t married to either one of them. And you know Michael Jackson must have seen that movie, as much as he loved old movies and Elizabeth Taylor.
But my point is, if he simply wanted to make Remember the Time a steamy romance he easily could have, but he didn’t. I mean, there’s a love scene in it, but overall it just doesn’t feel like it’s primarily a love story to me. It seems to me that once again he’s evoking that double relationship we see so often in his songs and videos of a man with his lover as well as a performer with his audience. We’ve talked about that double relationship before in posts about the My Baby songs (songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous”) as well as a lot of the Invincible songs (like “Invincible,” “Don’t Walk Away,” “Butterflies,” “Whatever Happens,” and “Speechless”) and in videos like You Rock My World, Who Is It, and Give In to Me. Over and over we see him creating this double narrative that, on one level, seems to be talking about the relationship between a man and his lover, but on another level is talking about the relationship between a performer and his audience.
And to me, this double relationship is perhaps spelled out more explicitly in Remember the Time than in any other video – after all, he really is playing both roles simultaneously. He is both a man trying to reconnect with a former lover and an entertainer trying to please his audience, all at the same time. I don’t think we see that in any other video.
And if we approach this video that way – as both a lost romance and a story about a performer and his audience – then all those things that really bothered me before make perfect sense. For example, I can understand why he would depict the Queen as fickle and cruel, because audiences really are fickle and cruel. They love Charlie Chaplin or Shirley Temple or Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber one day, and then take great delight in tearing them down the next. And I can understand why he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand like he’s about to go into battle, because I imagine that a lot of times dealing with some members of his audience, especially critics, must have felt like a battle.
Joie: Ok, Willa, when you explain it that way, I can see where you’re coming from. And your interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. I can see the double relationship you’re talking about with the Queen representing the fickle audience here. You’re probably absolutely right. That double relationship was one that Michael used over and over again to get his point of view across and to attempt to educate the rest of us about our behavior. It was a “go to” sort of tactic for him, and one that served him well, I think. I wonder if other artists use it so effectively.
Willa: That’s a good question, Joie. I know it’s fairly common for artists – poets especially – to present the relationship between an artist and his muse as a love affair, but I don’t know about the relationship between an artist and his audience. Hmmm … that’s interesting.
But you know, I don’t mean to say this is the only way of approaching this video. I’m really intrigued by this interpretation, but I feel like I’ve been pushing it too hard. There are a lot of other really interesting ways to approach it as well. For example, I’d like to go back to a question you raised earlier when you said, “I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting.”
That’s a really good question – why did he choose to set this video in ancient Egypt? It reminds me of something he said in an interview with Jesse Jackson in March 2005:
Michael Jackson: I really love Africa, and I love the people of Africa. … I spend more of my vacation in Africa than any other country. … They never show the sandy, white sugar beaches, and it’s there. … They never show how beautiful the place is, and it’s really stunningly beautiful! And I want to heighten that awareness with what I’m doing, and that’s been my dream for many, many years. …
Jesse Jackson: You know, we know about the high points of Rome because we see it on film.
Michael Jackson: That’s right.
Jesse Jackson: We know about the high points of Britain and the palace. We see it on film. Or on Paris. We don’t see much of Africa on film. We see Africa as misery, and Africa as problems. We do not see it as being this phenomenally endowed continent of sand and sea and oil and resources. …
Michael Jackson: The world is jealous of Africa for many centuries because the natural resources are phenomenal! It really is. And it is the dawn of civilization. Our history, a lot of our Bible history, is right there in Africa. And King Tut, all these great civilizations, that is right there in Africa. Egypt is in Africa! And they always try to separate the two, but Egypt is Africa.
That’s a long quotation, but I think it helps explain why Egypt was so important to him. We see this fascination with Egyptian art and culture running throughout his adult life, and I wonder if that stems in part from an urge to reclaim Egypt as part of black history and culture.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the fact that the Egyptian royal couple played by Eddie Murphy and Iman are black. We don’t usually see that – for example, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was white. But in Remember the Time, the Egyptian royalty are black. In fact, the entire cast is black. I can’t think of another Michael Jackson video where that’s true. And I wonder if he set it up that way in part to emphasize the idea he expresses in the Jesse Jackson interview that “Egypt is in Africa … Egypt is Africa.”
Joie: That’s a great quote, and I completely agree with what he said in that quote, “they” do always try to separate Egypt from Africa, but it can’t be done. And I think you’re right in suggesting that perhaps that was part of his motive here – to bring an awareness or try to educate us about Egypt being Africa.
Willa: You know, I’d never thought about that before – that Egypt is often separated out from Africa – until I listened to this interview. That’s really interesting, and it adds a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson’s longtime interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptian art. For example, we see it in the Bashir documentary when he talks so enthusiastically about the Egyptian sarcophagus, and we see it in this portrait from the HIStory album, which is modeled after a sculpture of Pharoah Khafre and his protector, the god Horus, who often appears as a falcon:
Interestingly, this sculpture of Khafre and Horus is seen by many scholars as the model for the Sphinx.
Joie: I’ve always thought that was a very interesting picture of him. The likeness is remarkable, I think.
And it is interesting, isn’t it? How the western world attempts to separate the great civilization of Egypt from the brown skinned people who built and ruled it. And that’s just the sort of African (and African American) history that Michael Jackson always seemed to be very drawn to and interested in. The history that he always tried to educate us about.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he continues our education in subtle ways in Remember the Time.
Posted on November 21, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Taylor, Iman, Jesse Jackson, Khafre and Horus, Magic Johnson, Michael Jackson, Remember the Time. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.