Boy, is that Girl with You?

Willa:  This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?

Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.

As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.

Joe:  Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.

I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).

Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.

As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,

It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.

So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?

Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.

Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.

Joe:  Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.

Willa:  Yes, as you write in your article,

D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”

As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,

Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.

Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.

Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).

Willa:  Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.

Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.

Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,

“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.

That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.

Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.

But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.

Willa:  Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.

This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”

I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White  – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.

In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.

Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.

In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.

So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.

Willa:  It really was.

Joe:  These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”

Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,

A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.

A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?

Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)

So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.

Willa:  Oh, I agree.

Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.

Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.

Willa:  It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.

It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.

Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.

I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.

Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.

Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.

One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.

This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.

Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!

Willa:  Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.

Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!

Willa:  It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!

So your article is now out and available?

Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.

Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.

I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?

Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.

Willa:  They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:

Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.

So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.

Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe!  It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.

Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!

Willa:  I will!


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on April 2, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Great discussion, Willa and Joe. Thanks so much. I have a lot to learn about the film industry, and this post was fascinating. I really hadn’t understood the significance of Birth of a Nation in terms of film or racism. And, given MJ’s knowledge of film, this discussion for me really deepens my understanding of B or W.

    Willa, I really liked this —

    “One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.

    This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.”

    This is so interesting and right on target and true today in terms of law vs. internalized feelings. We can pass all the laws in the world, but until people’s “gut feelings” change about race (or sex), racism still exists, but often people aren’t even aware of their gut feelings. But art addresses those internalized feelings and MJ knew that and used his artistic power to bring about change — and his power still exists in the world.

    The idea that Griffith set out to “create abhorrence” in film shows his understanding of imagery’s power over our emotions, an understanding MJ shared and, in B or W, used to undermine Griffith’s intent — as you and Joe point out so well.

    However, I wish there was a way to distinguish race as a biological category, which as you say does not exist, and race as a cultural category, which does exist. There is such a thing as white culture and black culture, and as a white woman, I know I have a lot to learn from black culture and MJ’s art is expressive of black culture, and Black or White also deals with that: the boy’s father is outraged because his white son is fascinated by “black music.” The mainstreaming of black culture especially through music, is very threatening to the gatekeepers of white culture.

    • “We can pass all the laws in the world, but until people’s ‘gut feelings’ change about race (or sex), racism still exists, but often people aren’t even aware of their gut feelings. But art addresses those internalized feelings and MJ knew that and used his artistic power to bring about change — and his power still exists in the world.

      The idea that Griffith set out to ‘create abhorrence’ in film shows his understanding of imagery’s power over our emotions, an understanding MJ shared and, in B or W, used to undermine Griffith’s intent.”

      Hi Eleanor. I agree, and it wasn’t just Griddith. Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first feature-length film. Then a few years later, the first “talkie” (meaning a movie with sound) was The Jazz Singer (1927), about a Jewish singer who performs in blackface. In fact, blackface was common in early films, with many of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland) performing in blackface. It seems the history of Hollywood is steeped in promoting racial fears and stereotypes.

      So I just came across these lyrics from a song by Leadbelly called “Jim Crow Blues”:

      I want to tell you people something that you don’t know
      It’s a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show

      Leadbelly nailed it. There’s been “a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show” since Hollywood’s inception, it seems.

  2. Wow, that’s all I can say, wow! Another thought provoking dialog (trialog?).

  3. Thank you for sharing that precious clip. It is amazing to get an insiders view of the pushback from within his crew. I’m impressed by how he didn’t take it personally or let it get in the way of creating what he meant to create.

    “It takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work.” I love this Willa. And thanks to both of you for being so dedicated to understanding and sharing what you learn. He took some huge risks making Black or White, so it seems extra important to fully understand what he was saying.

    Putting it in the context of the birth of film (Birth of a Nation) is really helpful. I didn’t know that history, and like Elenore, I’m a white woman appreciating how much I am learning about our history and mainstream culture from black culture and MJ’s art in particular.

    Elenore comments, “The mainstreaming of black culture especially through music, is very threatening to the gatekeepers of white culture.”

    I’ve been realizing that is particularly true in MJ’s case because the gatekeepers maintain their power by dividing and conquering, through racism and other “isms”. Michael was not only connecting us, by the time Dangerous came around, he was intentionally using that connection to challenge those in power.

    • “It is amazing to get an insiders view of the pushback from within his crew. I’m impressed by how he didn’t take it personally or let it get in the way of creating what he meant to create.”

      Hi Keely. I know what you mean! I was really struck by how tense that situation was, behind the scenes. Everyone is smiling, but there is a lot of tension between John Landis and Michael Jackson, especially – seems like that would be a very difficult environment to perform in, to relax and dance with all that going on. Like you, I’m impressed that he persisted and was able to create “what he meant to create.”

      I wonder if dealing with John Landis is where some of Michael Jackson’s palpable anger in the panther dance comes from? Landis is not happy with what he is doing and openly expresses that in a rather ridiculing way. I mean, white patriarchy isn’t just an abstract concept in this situation. John Landis, the white director, is right there in his face. It’s very interesting (though uncomfortable) to see those dynamics play out behind the scenes.

  4. Thank you for this discussion and as you say .. there is so many layers yet to discuss regarding Black or White… any attempt to climb into the intellect of Michael is always an awakening to the senses, sensations and discussions always brings moments of clarity – He innately understood how music penetrates the brain on diff levels thru different frequencies and used his artistry to influence thinking and perception under the guise of just plain good music. To say he was a genius is an understatement- he’s got that beat going on in your brain that just won’t quit and with that beat the concept- Bam

    Indeed, the little snippet of behind the scenes demonstrates clearly that Landis didn’t have a clue as to what Michael was trying to emote – and while you focused on the final scenes, it’s the beginning of the dance that enthralls me the most …

    Landis thinking it was “dirty dancing” clearly missed the message entirely.

    Immediately following the morph from panther to man .. he’s hit suddenly with an overhead light of inspection the interrogation type bulb – Can almost hear Michael say– “Oh? So you want to hear my version of things? Okay then “ he walks down the street flips open his shirt in Clint Eastwood “ready for gun battle in middle of street” style and sets his body awaiting, prepared – it’s almost as if he has a premonition of things to come that he’d have to bear in his own life.

    As Michael stands against the raging wind of oppression – bits of garbage being blown in his direction .. .. he doesn’t waver or falter and in his posture and stance we see defiance, resistance- standing erect, yet motionless- facing it all and yet withstanding it … that to me is such a wonderful visual of not only how HE stood up against powerful forces but also his representation of how black men through out history have done, as well. He looks up .. He’s representing – He’s shuffling – he roars.. stepping on top of the newspaper which to me it’s a statement “Listen to me and not this garbage” the into his tap dance/soft shoe – which again refers to the “blackface” dancing and demeaning of his race — — then he moves on to demonstrate the power with his own interpretation of tap — dance — erotic movements and even a tip of the hat to Gene Kelly’s lamp post .. … just takes the breath away …

    There is so much more .. … but just that bit always gives chills …

    Again,, thank you so much …

    • “As Michael stands against the raging wind of oppression – bits of garbage being blown in his direction … he doesn’t waver or falter and in his posture and stance we see defiance, resistance – standing erect, yet motionless – facing it all and yet withstanding it … that to me is such a wonderful visual of not only how HE stood up against powerful forces but also his representation of how black men through out history have done, as well”

      I love this description! I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but you’re right – it really is “a wonderful visual of … how HE stood up against powerful forces.” And how interesting that much of the “garbage” blowing against him is newspapers …

      • I hadn’t thought of it that way either. I always wondered why that bit of newspaper tangled around his legs wasn’t removed so that Michael could dance properly, or so that we could see those feet properly??!! We have said so many times that nothing about Michael’s work was random, and this is very much a case in point I think.

        So much in this short film and post as ever to think about, and of course all of it relevant. I loved the clip which I hadn’t seen before with John Landis, and had no idea that he was so against it. Obviously he didn’t understand what Michael was trying to convey, anymore than he did the deeper messages in Thriller as discussed in a previous post on Thriller. He might have been a great director, and both short films are wonderful, but I don’t think he got Michael on certain levels and how that motivated him.

        Didn’t Michael just look absolutely gorgeous here though? dancing aside, if one can put it aside, he looks fantastic. The close up photo of him wearing that hat in Dancing The Dream is one of my favourites.

        Congrats Joe by the way on your PhD. I love your writing about Michael, which is always just great – well-researched, balanced and very insightful. Thanks for everything you write and the recognition you get is well deserved.

        As an aside, have just got a Kindle version of Damien Shields book on Xscape Origins. Very good and well worth a read. Wonderful look into Michaels craftsmanship behind the scenes.

    • MJJJ, This is soooo good.

      Wonder if the newspaper is The Saturday Sun? Maybe it didn’t get his message right.

  5. This you tube video of The Panther Dance, posted in 2009, does Imo, an excellent job of interpeting what the symbolism in it means. There are many others that attempt it, but Imo, this one says it best, considering the extensive knowledge Michael had of black history- and which white people know very little of, thanks to the white-washing of school textbooks on the subject. The way it’s interpeted clearly shows that Michael knew exactly what systemic racism and white privilege is. Of course he would do it in such a way that it would get people talking and it did. Oh, the scandal of it, was the talk of the day! But genius that he was, he did it in such a way he knew it would eventually be interpeted for what it really meant. Michael was intuitive like that. There’s a quote attributed to John Landis at the end of it, that suggests that he realized that Michael ‘tapped’ into something concerning what was going on at that time.

  6. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this q and a..I am amazed at how brilliant MJ was, with his messages in his art , when it is really examined.
    Back when this video came out , I was just enjoying the music and dance so much, I really didnt notice how carefully thought out everything he put out, was .
    Thanks for putting this up

  7. I recently ran across this quote from MLK,

    “Our nation was born in genocide. . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”

    I think it is so interesting relative to your discussion of “Birth of a Nation” and to MJ’s inclusion of Native Americans in B or W, now only a cultural presence as they are depicted in movies. Another comment he is making on racism and the film industry.

    Also, the more I think about using the word black to refer to both a group of people who have certain physical characteristics and the culture associated with those people, the more frustrated I get — because it really confuses the issues.

    The liberal gatekeepers of white culture are open minded enough to allow a person with black skin “in” as long as he or she has jumped through all the right, white hoops, as long as that person has renounced black culture in favor of white, as long as that person has become ersatz white. This renunciation, in itself, is a confirmation of white superiority. If you want our goodies, you have to become “one of us.” But, we will let you. We will give you the tools.

    Liberal whites, I think unconsciously, often come from a place that says, we understand that although your skin color is genetic, your behavior is not. So, your skin color does not by itself consign you to the social rubbish heap (which leaves unsaid — but we all know that your black skin color combined with black cultural characteristics would). Underneath, you are just like us — or you better be!

    Conservative whites assume skin color and behavior are genetic, and since collective behaviors are cultural markers, and conservatives are all about conserving white cultural values, they don’t even want to allow people of another color the chance to jump through the hoops that would get them in the door. Black skin is an automatic barrier to the rights and privileges of white society. Blacks are genetically inferior to whites. And it is this belief that was at the root of miscegenation laws. Both white and black collective behaviors are viewed as genetic, not cultural. Whites are fully human. Blacks are animals. Racial intermarriage means the breeding of two different species and the contamination, not just of the white race, but the contamination of the human species. Can’t let that happen. Birth of a Nation. End of story.

    To me, racism is not about skin color, but about the culture. Your skin color doesn’t matter, we won’t hold that against you; but don’t drag your culture into ours, don’t contaminate our culture with yours. But, if white culture is all washed up and totally corrupt, which I believe it is, taking us all down a path of death and destruction, endless war and environmental degradation, then we desperately need help from somewhere, and I think the worldview and value system of black culture has a lot to offer us. But first, we need to be able to identify what those characteristics are in white culture that are leading us astray; and we need to be able to recognize and identify and VALUE those characteristics in black culture that could offer us help. The only problem is that we keep denying the existence of black culture by claiming we are all alike (when what we really mean is “You, too, can be white!”) And, political correctness, which celebrates individual differences, seems to frown on even acknowledging collective differences — and culture is collective by definition. Trying to acknowledge cultural differences in some circles makes me a racist.

    In B or W, MJ shows us dance from a variety of different cultures, and he values that cultural diversity. And, he himself, in the midst of representatives of all the other cultures, represents black culture. To me, he is saying black culture is as real and as valid and as valuable as any of these other cultures. Also, with his white skin color, he is clearly showing the dichotomy between skin color and culture. He is white, but also black. Just as Barack Obama is black, but was brought up culturally white.

    To me, genocide is not only the physical extermination of another race, it also is the devaluation and annihilation of another culture. Genocide through assimilation.

    Not being contentious (maybe a little bit). Just trying to work my way through this terrible and terribly confusing problem.

    • when what we really mean is “You, too, can be white!”

      Exactly! I really believe it’s more about culture than race. I mean, doesn’t gender discrimination show it best? To me gender equality predominantly means that women too can be and act like men. That means they too can be tough, they too can work hard and manage an enterprise or even take office. They too are able to hand over the responsibility for their children to others, they too can be promiscuous and so on. And of course it is a great achievement that women today are “allowed” to do so if that’s what they want. But it doesn’t mean that behaviors or attitudes which are culturally labeled as typically “female” (like being soft, caring or loving, staying at home to bring up the children or care for the old etc.) are equally respected or esteemed. Not at all! Women who choose not to build a carrer are often seen as lazy, weak, dumb or backwardly, a shrinking violet. Even worse when men choose to be househusbands… and a man who cares about children too much must have a very dirty mind, right?

      • “To me gender equality predominantly means that women too can be and act like men. … But it doesn’t mean that behaviors or attitudes which are culturally labeled as typically “female” (like being soft, caring or loving, staying at home to bring up the children or care for the old etc.) are equally respected or esteemed. Not at all!”

        Hi Julie. This is a really important point, I think. I’m old enough to remember a lot of the discussion in the 60s and 70s when many women were entering the workforce, and I thought the dream was more flexibility for everyone, especially those in traditional families. A mom could work full time while dad was with the kids, or a dad could work full time while mom was with the kids, or (ideally) they could both work part time and be home part time, or … It was supposed to open up more options for all.

        Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect in some ways. As you point out so well, now everyone is supposed to fit the corporate model. And those who don’t fit – men like Michael Jackson, who like being with children – well, there must be something wrong with them …

    • “To me, genocide is not only the physical extermination of another race, it also is the devaluation and annihilation of another culture. Genocide through assimilation.”

      Hi Eleanor. I know this idea of “annihilation through assimilation” is a very important one in the Jewish community, and among American Indians and other “minority” cultures as well. And of course, it’s been a big issue in the black community for a long time. There has been a strong resistance to the idea that, to paraphrase Julie, “racial equality means that blacks too can be and act like whites.” (Of course, there’s the flip side as well, which is that when blacks like Barack Obama or Michael Jackson become too successful, they are accused of not being “black enough.”)

      We see this issue with developing countries also, where the idea seems to be that they too can become industrialized and corporate, and lose their cultural heritage. And many times this is almost forced on them by Western institutions. For example, if a developing country has a problem – like a lack of clean water – the World Bank will only provide financing for approved solutions, meaning solutions that feel familiar to them, like a large industrial treatment plant, which may not fit their needs and will most certainly leave them with a huge debt.

      • Thanks for these interesting thoughts. I believe this helps to explain the role of U.S. empire in the world: the use of some notion of “democracy,” for example—of which the U.S. is a piss-poor example, anyway—as an ideological pretext for the invasion of other countries. The annihilation of cultures also, I think, adds up to the erasure of difference of all kinds.

  8. Great discussion! And looking forward very much to reading your book and article, Dr. Vogel (big congrats on that achievement.)

    Loved your comment, MJJJ, about Mj’s, defiant stance. And in Earth Song he stands between 2 broken trees while buffeted by the winds, showing us, as Armond White said, a positioning– to stand our ground and not yield.

    Agree, Kelley, that gatekeepers in power work to divide, while, i contrast, MJ was uniting us (very threatening to an agenda of division and discord).

    Amazing quote, Eleanor, from MLK about the genocide of the indigenous population and how it has been ignored and ommitted as much as possible from our historical awareness. MJ aligns himself with indigenous peoples in the BOW video–the African tribesmen, native Americans, women dancers from Indonesia and India, and the Russian Cossaks.

    And his dancing with the women, reinforces what Joe says about MJ’s countering of the misogyny in hip hop and metal. Good point that race is primarily, or maybe entirely, cultural, Eleanor, and that attempts to destroy culture are concealed beind a seeming acceptance.

    Great discussion and great comments! Thank you, all.

  9. Thanks so much for this intriguing discussion, Willa, Joe and everyone. And thank you for your recent article, Joe. I so enjoyed reading your analysis of the ways that film defies the traditional narrative structure that Griffith was largely responsible for putting in place. (I hope we can converse about this in more depth sometime.)

    I’d like to offer some observations about the behind-the-scenes clip, and the dynamics it reveals between Michael, Vincent Patterson, John Landis, and even Karen Faye (who refrains from giving Michael any advice).

    Firstly, Patterson—who I assume was co-choreographer (?), makes some movements by way of direction and says to Michael:

    “No, not wild—wild is great. I’m just saying, sometimes you get real funky or sometimes you get…. tight. [Video glitch—unintelligible.] Sharp body lines, Loosen your body, you know what I mean? Funk out. Funk out.

    MJ: Be more wormy.

    Landis: More wormy. More wormy. Grab your nuts some more?

    MJ: See, he’s thinking dirty. I don’t do dirty things.

    Landis: You know what I mean. “Wormy,” right? He doesn’t mean “wormy.”

    MJ: It’s an expression. I know exactly what you mean.

    Landis: I know. (to Patterson): He knows what you mean.

    MJ (smiling, to Landis): You’re so dirty.

    Landis: Excuse me, was I doing…..

    Karen Faye: It’s all in the mind.

    MJ: Yes.

    Landis, to camera: Was I imagining he was grabbing his nuts?

    [Video glitch].

    Offscreen: Rolling!

    Here, they do a take of Michael dancing on top of the car, then jumping on the hood and continuing his dance, and then jumping to the pavement and running out of the camera’s range. Michael calls, “one more!” and we then see the crew readying him for another take, on top of the car.

    Offscreen: All right, stand by to go, please!

    Landis (to camera): I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.

    Joe, I agree that this clip shows us how Michael Jackson “dethrones” Landis and installs himself as as auteur. By calling the shots, he creates a place for himself to make his own sense and meaning, of his performance. What’s more, John Landis actually seems to cede his directorial authority to Michael, while simultaneously disowning this part of the film: “I’m just shooting.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I want no part of this.”

    But the few words Michael says to Landis here, amplified by Karen Faye, are really key: it seems to me that everything else we see in the Panther coda follows from this exchange.

    I’m not sure any of us, in Landis’s position, would have genuinely understood what Michael was up to here. We have the luxury of hindsight, yet I still don’t know if, even today, we completely “get it” (and that’s what we’re trying to work out here). What’s remarkable, though, is the way Michael seizes control of the whole scenario through his dance, and resists every effort of the viewing public (including his director) to pigeon-hole him. In this clip, we hear him essentially asking Landis in particular to turn his gaze upon himself for a change. In this way, the panther dance poses an affront to white prerogative and its standard optic on a number of levels. It’s not simply that Michael approaches (it’s thought) the topics of sex and violence in his performance: he dares to wrest representational power from Landis, overturning a familiar hierarchy. He makes the director of record—to his evident discomfort—-accountable for his own perceptions, placing the burden of self-examination on Landis, instead of bearing it himself.

    This reminds me of a well-known passage about black subjectivity, from W.E.B. DuBois’ “Souls of Black Folk”:

    “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
    Throughout the (disturbing) panther dance, the composite viewing public, which includes the producers, directors, and spectators for whom Michael Jackson had always been the object of numerous fantasies, are now invited to look at their own unexamined assumptions about just WHO has the prerogative to define themselves, or the power to define others. His orchestration of dance and gesture implicitly asked audiences to attain a measure of self-consciousness as possible voyeurs—or. in the partial reversal of subject/object relations Michael brought about through this dance, the “double-consciousness” DuBois writes about. (Needless to say, many people didn’t accept that invitation very graciously.)

    Michael rips through the space like a hurricane or a tornado, even bringing a strong wind with him. There are closeups that feature Michael’s face, which indicates his possible state of mind; and also the power and precision—the eloquence—-of his body language throughout this dance. I’m reminded of a statement James Baldwin makes in a roundtable discussion on the poems of Langston Hughes (1965):

    Interviewer: The review was of poems of Langston Hughes, and you concluded by saying that ‘he is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable.’ To what extent do you find this true in your own writing in terms of the self-consciousness of being Negro and a writer, the polarity, if it exists?

    James Baldwin: Well, the first difficulty is really so simple that it’s usually overlooked: to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this:i t isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening all around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.”

    * * * * *
    That MJ’s dance is unvoiced here (though we do have rich sonic texture through sound effects) is really essential to our ability to identify with his rage. Historically, from writing the script to the techniques of sound recording and mixing, the *spoken dialogue* (or its “primitive” form in early cinema, intertitles), has stood fast as the key element of the conventional narrative film. But in Michael Jackson’s panther dance, the spectator is deprived of such narrative comforts: notably, the comfort (and the narrative alibi, through lyrics) of Michael’s singing voice. His speaking voice, also absent, can “explain” nothing. No musical accompaniment assuages our discomfort at witnessing the series of spectacles and tableaux Michael produces as his body moves through space, as well as the sound effects the film emits as Michael makes physical contact with various parts of his environment, his clothing, his own body—all exaggerated by the amplified sound recording. Most alarmingly, we have no story-context in which to place this seemingly angry “outburst.” It stands apart from the rest of the film. (That certainly seems to be the reason why a decision was made to insert those “graffiti” elements, “KKK rules,” “No more wetbacks,” etc. in subsequent releases. I think it was an infantilizing move.)

    In the original broadcast, the spectator had little choice but to be attentive to the detailed eloquence of Michael’s dancing body, without distraction, and bereft of any musical or narrative pretext. As a whole, what this spectacle/soundscape conveys to us is the sensuality and force of raw emotion and above all its efficacy: its destructive potential and—-perhaps most frighteningly—-its ability to *speak for itself.*

  10. Two major cinematic tropes that D.W. Griffith pioneered in Birth of a Nation (or even in his earlier, shorter films) are present in “Black or White”: the use of closeups, and the direction of actors whose exaggerated body movements and gestures provided rich insights into their psychological states.

    These methods were developed in order to move audiences to feelings of empathy and identification with the characters who appear on the screen. In Griffith’s time, they were almost exclusively reserved for the white characters, so that the growing (white) middle-class audiences could understand these flickering shadows as people with “whom” they could identify. Even today, the same imbalances persist within most of mainstream (Hollywood) American cinema. Black characters have largely remained ciphers and caricatures—not only by virtue of the stereotypically “negative” ways they were represented, but because the films’ formal structures rarely permitted spectators to thoroughly identify with, or experience the interior lives of, these characters. The problem begins with the way the scenarios and scripts are written, of course; but it extends to choices made in casting, and, in production, camera positioning (the proximity of the camera to the actors, its angle on the action, as well as the length of the shots). Additionally, all aspects of editing and sound mixing contribute to our understanding of where our sympathies, as an audience, are meant to lie.

    Griffith was the author of “Birth of a Nation”; and we should also consider who (or what) provides the narrational voice in a film. In other words: through whose eyes/ears/sensorium are we perceiving the the fictional world of the film?

    The stakes in this question are tremendous, in my view. They help to explain why the optics of white supremacy persisted in most of American Hollywood cinema, even in seemingly “liberal,” anti-racist films (like Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from 1967), and even in more recent films. Here, I’m thinking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) and “Wonder Boys,” directed by Curtis Hanson, 2000; both these movies feature more subtle forms of “focalization” through white characters, at the expense—as I read it—-of the black characters we see, and occasionally hear, but are never permitted to really listen to. Undoubtedly, many more examples abound. (Don’t even get me started on Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”!)

    This question of point of view, point of audition, and “focalization” also bears directly upon our reading of events (and how our emotions register what we see and hear) when cell phone videos of police brutality are posted online—most recently, in the case of the police shooting of Walter Scott, a black man in South Carolina.

    At what point, and by what cinematic means, does a black character cease to be a spectacle (or object of fun/ridicule/fear/loathing) for both the film’s central characters AND its spectators, and instead become a subject —-capable of determining his/her own meaning for him- or herself?

    One of the rare achievements of Michael’s panther dance in “Black or White” is to reveal to the spectator Michael’s interior world, upsetting the balance of discursive power within a system of white supremacy, its artifacts, and its technologies of representation. Who is authorized to claim that their own perceptions are the baseline of “reality,” from which everything else is a departure? How dare Michael Jackson stage such a blatant rejection of definitions imposed upon him from without? And: the nerve of him, imagining that he can define himself, and that he can enact this gesture of self-narration for all the world to see!

    I could go on about other elements of narrative film grammar that Griffith pioneered, in Birth of a Nation, and even earlier in his short films (and their ramifications for the way MJ made his films), but that’s enough for now. Sorry to ramble on and on…. I guess I got carried away!

  11. Interesting and Timely interview with Noam Chomsky . The Roots of American Racism -

  12. i have question regarding mj, does sony have anything to do with the court cases (u knw ), mj actually one time i think its in the invincible period that it was sony who called hime ped***
    so can anyone confirm this, or was mj just simply angered beacause of lack of promotion.

    sorry to bother you, i just wanted to know the truth.

  13. Michael, in an interview with MTV in 1999 explained exactly what the ‘Panther Dance’ was about. (right around 4:40)

  14. No Arun, Michael didn’t say that Sony said that, he said the press did, that they did everything they could to turn the public against him.

  15. Here is a video of John Landis and his wife discussing his time working on the, “Black or White” video a year after Michael died. We should all be “pretty crazy” like Michael in my opinion.

    • Hi kittuandme. Thanks so much for sharing this! I’d seen some behind the scenes footage of Black or White, but hadn’t seen this before. I was really intrigued by John Landis’ comments on the face makeup of the tribal dancers, and Michael Jackson’s response. They’re just hanging out talking, and one of the dancers in facepaint says, “Michael is giving a big party and we’re going to be there.” Landis kind of does a double take and says, “The more I look at you, you look like … Did you ever see that Star Trek episode that had the guys half-black, half-white?” So he’s starting to see something in that. But Michael Jackson doesn’t want to get into a discussion of that with John Landis (even though I think that’s precisely what’s going on – their facepaint does make their faces appear half-black, half-white) so he disassociates himself from it and steers Landis back to safer territory, saying, “They made it up.” That is so interesting.

      • i too was most intrigued by that part , i have read the same in one of the review of BoW (cant recall whether it was armondwhite/ravens blog/joe vogel) , but i thought it was a simple coincedence,guess it was infact intentional.

  16. I was thinking the same thing, Willa. I used to be a “Trekkie,” and that particular episode of Star Trek (original series) has been in the back of my mind as I contemplate other instances where an altered photograph shows a face that has been split down the middle in some fashion.

    Most pertinently, some people made images that bisect Michael’s own face like a “before” and “after” display, using existing photos of him and altering them in Photoshop (or another program). For instance, there might be an image from 1990 on the left, and a 2003 photo on the right, which seem to show the similarities of his facial structure over time, minimizing the surgeries… as the argument goes. I find those altered photographs fascinating (and problematic is some ways); but that’s another discussion for another time! 🙂

  1. Pingback: In Memory of Michael: Be the Black Panther - Dare to Rise Up

  2. Pingback: Boy, is that Girl with You? by Willa&Joie – ONLYMICHAELJACKSON

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