Willa: Last June our friend and frequent contributor Eleanor Bowman visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where Michael Jackson is interred. I had never thought much about it before – I guess I just assumed it was a nice cemetery where a lot of Hollywood stars were buried – but Eleanor explained that it was much more than that. For example, she said the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn is filled with life-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s statues, carved in marble like the originals.
Eleanor’s emails sparked my curiosity, so I started doing some research and learned that Forest Lawn was modelled on a very different vision of what a cemetery could be – as a joyful public place where people could experience great works of art, reconnect with nature, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. In fact, it helped change popular ideas about cemeteries. As founder Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917, “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.”
So this year, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we would like to talk about Forest Lawn, about Dr. Eaton’s vision and how it relates to Michael Jackson’s ideas about art, and whether Forest Lawn is an appropriate final resting place for him. Eleanor, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Lisha: Wow, this sounds like a fascinating topic. I had no idea Forest Lawn had such an unusual history. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us. I’m anxious to learn more.
Eleanor: Hi, Willa and Lisha. And thanks for the invitation to again talk about my favorite person.
Last year, I was visiting my son, Shaw, in LA and realized it was close to the anniversary of Michael’s death, and I wanted to do something, to somehow feel closer, to honor him. And my son, who a couple of years ago had humored me by driving me by the gates to the original Jackson compound on Hayvenhurst, entered into the spirit of things and spent the whole day taking me to places associated with Michael.
Willa: Oh really? So you and your son took your own private Michael Jackson tour?
Eleanor: Yes, we did. And it was a wonderful day!
Willa: That sounds really fun! There are professional Michael Jackson tours costing hundreds of dollars, but doing your own tour sounds much better.
Lisha: I agree. Ever since I saw this YouTube video called the “Ultimate Michael Jackson Fan Tour (Red in L.A.),” I’ve wanted to do some DIY Michael Jackson tourism myself:
Willa: I love that video, Lisha. And how wonderful that you were able to do some “DIY Michael Jackson tourism” with your son, Eleanor! Where all did you go?
Eleanor: First we went to Holmby Hills (Holmby Hills is adjacent to Beverly Hills) to see the house he was living in when he was preparing for This Is It. It occupies an entire block, sitting on a steep, pie-shaped piece of land with the house at the top, backing up to the narrow end, and the front looking out over terraced gardens and beyond that over LA. The double garage opens right onto the street and the garage door was open, and I could imagine MJ coming and going from his house. The neighborhood is so beautiful and tranquil, curving narrow streets lined with lovely trees and flowering plants. So green and quiet.
Next we went into Hollywood and I found his star in the sidewalk. That evening we went to La Cabanita, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale which was one of Liz Taylor’s favorites, and we could imagine MJ and Liz having dinner together. (The food was wonderful!)
But the best and most moving part of the day for me was the visit to Forest Lawn. Very quiet. Rolling hills, mostly, with graves flush with the ground. Except, of course, for the huge mausoleum where the rich and famous, including MJ, are entombed – a sort of cathedral for the dead. Elizabeth Taylor’s crypt has beautiful sprays of white orchids on either side of a huge marble block with her name. On top was an enormous statue of an angel.
Eleanor: The building is a real cultural experience. I have never seen anything like it. Copies of Michelangelo’s sculptures everywhere, as you mentioned, Willa. Full size. And a huge stained-glass window that is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Really over the top, but still … fitting, I think, for these people who in some way represent our cultural archetypes.
I told Shaw I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, both cultural critiques of the US, both inspired by Forest Lawn, and representing all I knew about Forest Lawn. I mean, Forest Lawn is a cultural icon all by itself, if a cemetery can be an icon.
Willa: I know what you mean, Eleanor. It really changed the look of cemeteries across the nation. I didn’t realize how significant it was until you told me about it and I started doing a little research. In fact, I knew very little about Forest Lawn. But after you piqued my interest I visited California and went to Forest Lawn – something I probably wouldn’t have done without your encouragement – and I was surprised by how beautiful it is. It feels like a park. In fact, it’s a popular place for weddings, which is pretty uncommon for a cemetery …
Lisha: Weddings? You can’t be serious! I can’t think of anything more antithetical to a cemetery than a wedding ceremony!
Willa: I was shocked when I read that too, so I asked David Macdonald about it. The Forest Lawn company actually has six separate cemeteries – or memorial parks, as they call them – and Mr. Macdonald is in charge of the original Glendale facility, where Michael Jackson is. Toni Bowers and I visited California last November, and before our trip we contacted Mr. Macdonald. He very kindly took us on a tour, and while we were walking around I asked him if it was true that Ronald Reagan was married there. He said yes, that thousands of people have been married there, and it’s still a popular place for weddings. In fact, he said he himself was married there. I was really surprised by all the weddings. That wasn’t at all what I expected at a cemetery.
Lisha: That is so cool you also got to visit! And that is just so surprising about the weddings – I just can’t picture it.
I google-searched and found this photo of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s 1940 wedding, which was held in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, a church at Forest Lawn:
The newlyweds are sitting in the church’s “Wishing Chair,” a stone monument that says, in part, “good fortune will forever smile upon the bride and bridegroom who sit in this chair on their wedding day.” Forest Lawn’s wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, told the Los Angeles Times that, “In the ’40s, if a couple wasn’t married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren’t married.… It was the elite place to be married.”
Never in a million years would I have guessed that a cemetery church would become “the elite place” for a wedding!
Eleanor: I wouldn’t either, Lisha, and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable with the idea.
Willa: It’s certainly unexpected, isn’t it? But in a way it’s a testament to the success of Dr. Eaton’s vision. He didn’t think a cemetery should be a mournful place, but a place of celebration. In fact, Mr. Macdonald said that before Disneyland was built, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles, and it still attracts a lot of visitors – though not nearly as many as Disneyland, of course. It’s just hard to imagine a cemetery being such a popular place to visit.
Lisha: That’s really something. It sounds like Dr. Eaton really wanted to challenge the way people were accustomed to thinking about death.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: I know the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris also attracts lots of tourists, but I thought that was because of their famous “residents” like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, and Frédéric Chopin. Visitors enjoy finding the graves of the historical figures who are buried there.
Willa: And that’s true of Forest Lawn as well. It’s amazing how many famous people from many different spheres have been laid to rest there, including actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians. There’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Gracie Allen and George Burns, Mary Pickford, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Casey Stengel – even Dr. Suess. Here’s a list of over 1,000 famous people buried there.
Eleanor: Thanks, Willa. Pretty comprehensive.
Willa: It’s a long list, isn’t it? But I think there’s something else at Forest Lawn that accounts for all the visitors and the wedding ceremonies. Dr. Eaton envisioned it as a place for the living as well as the dead.
Legend has it that on New Year’s Day of 1917 he was walking the hills at Forest Lawn and suddenly had a vision of what it could be. He came home and wrote what came to be known as “The Builder’s Creed.” It has since been carved in stone on a wall near the entrance to the Great Mausoleum. Here are some of his words:
I believe in a happy eternal life. …
I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, rather than a beginning. …
I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death. …
Forest Lawn shall become a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow, planning for the future or reminiscing of the past; a place where artists study and sketch; where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books …
So Dr. Eaton actually envisioned Forest Lawn as a place for lovers! In that sense – that it’s a place where lovers stroll, artists sketch, and schoolchildren visit on field trips to see great works of art – it’s very different from most cemeteries.
Lisha: That is such a radical concept – for the end of life to be celebrated as a new beginning, which is how we usually think of weddings, not funerals. It turns the concept of a burial into a celebration of life and love, rather than the ultimate tragic end.
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha.
Lisha: The Forest Lawn website has an interesting story about the very first statue Dr. Eaton purchased for the cemetery, back in 1915, known as Duck Baby. The idea of placing art in a cemetery was so foreign at that time, the purchase created some controversy and was initially rejected by the company’s board of directors. Duck Baby depicts a smiling child, full of life, holding baby ducks in its arms. Installing a beautiful statue like this was such a different way of thinking about burials, many had a hard time envisioning the concept.
Eleanor: Yes, it is very different. And not everyone has shared or admired Eaton’s vision. Especially not early on. Forest Lawn has had quite a history and has aroused a lot of controversy, often seen as an example of American commercialism and bad taste. Jessica Mitford used it as an example of what not to do. And Evelyn Waugh used it to satirize American life.
Since my only association with Forest Lawn was through those two books, I had some reservations, myself, about it as a proper burial place for Michael Jackson. But, of course, he isn’t really buried, but entombed. For one thing, it seemed almost sacrilegious to me for him to be entombed anywhere. He seemed to feel himself so much a part of nature, it seemed against everything he believed in to separate his body from his beloved Planet Earth. Cremation seemed more appropriate.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Eleanor. I mean, Michael Jackson basically wrote a love letter to nature in “Planet Earth,” where he said,
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form
It’s hard to believe the person who wrote those words would want his body to be kept separate from nature and the cycle of life – shut away inside a metal box which was then placed inside a stone box. But I also see how his family and fans would want a place to remember him and memorialize his life.
Eleanor: Yes, I agree. On the one hand, he seemed to feel so in tune with nature, so much a part of it. I like to think of his art as an expression of nature, flowing through his body in his dance. His voice singing nature’s songs.
However, I did a reality check and, although I think cremation would have been more suitable, he was, after all, Michael Jackson and that just wasn’t going to happen. So, on second thought, I decided that there couldn’t be any more appropriate place than Forest Lawn for the King of Pop.
Willa: It’s interesting you should say that, Eleanor, because one of the things I learned at Forest Lawn is that an early definition of “mausoleum” is “a burial place for kings.” So it’s appropriate, as you say, that the King of Pop should be laid to rest there.
Eleanor: I didn’t know that! So, really fitting for Michael.
Willa: Yes it is. But Forest Lawn was also an early proponent of cremation. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a book published to celebrate their centennial, “Facilities for a crematory were listed among Forest Lawn’s earliest goals in the articles of incorporation in 1906,” and they built a crematory in 1917, when cremation was a pretty unsettling idea for many people and not nearly as accepted as it is today. In fact, one of their many challenges in the early days was “dispelling myths” about cremation.
But while they still offer cremation services, that isn’t what they are known for. They are known for the Great Mausoleum and the beautiful grounds, and the many celebrities who are buried or entombed there.
Eleanor: Yes, and Forest Lawn is probably the only cemetery in the world that has the resources to protect him from crazed love and hate. The part of the mausoleum where he is is kept locked – which may also have something to do with his gold casket. I don’t know. Do either of you? I couldn’t get in when I visited, so had to content myself with imagining what it was like inside.
Willa: Well, the Great Mausoleum is huge, and while some of it is open to the public, a lot of it is private. There’s the main building, which was built in 1917, and then additions have been added over the years. The first was Azalea Terrace in 1919, and then they continued alphabetically up through Jasmine Terrace. Michael Jackson is in Holly Terrace, which was added in 1949. I found a website that had a historical photo taken in 1952, before the Iris and Jasmine terraces were built. Holly Terrace is highlighted in red:
So the Great Mausoleum is an enormous structure, or series of structures, and much of it is inaccessible to the public, though family members may visit whenever they wish. In fact, I believe all of the terraces are private. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s right. I know Holly Terrace is closed to the public, and Michael Jackson’s family chose to place him there. According to an article in Time magazine published the day of his funeral, concerns about privacy were a major factor in their decision.
Mr. Macdonald told us the Jackson family actually purchased the entire alcove where Michael Jackson is, which includes about a dozen additional tomb spaces in the walls surrounding his crypt. (Mr. Macdonald wasn’t sure of the exact number.) So I assume his mother will one day be laid to rest there, along with other family members as well.
Lisha: That’s really interesting. I have never heard that before.
Willa: I hadn’t either. By the way, you can see the outside of the Jackson alcove in the picture above. It’s the bump-out on the right side of Holly Terrace (the part in red). Here’s a better picture, looking up at the alcove where he is:
And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest of the Jackson alcove from the inside:
The beautiful stained-glass windows surrounding his crypt are called the Ascension windows, and they are based on Nicola D’Ascenzo’s “The Ascension,” which is an elaborate window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The series of stone panels on both sides of the alcove are where additional caskets can be slid into the walls.
Eleanor: Willa, thank you so much for including this picture.
Willa: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And notice all the flowers. While fans aren’t allowed inside Holly Terrace, Mr. Macdonald said they try to accommodate fans as much as possible. He said that, for security reasons, they can’t place anything by his crypt that is sent from outside Forest Lawn. But if fans purchase an arrangement from the Forest Lawn flower shop, so they know it’s safe, they will take it inside and place it by his casket. Fans from around the world regularly do that, he said, and there were a lot of flower arrangements when we were there.
Eleanor: I wish I had known that last year. When we arrived, we headed over to the mausoleum and pressed a button outside the door, and a sepulchral disembodied voice from within told us it was closed, but then directed us to the door closest to Michael Jackson’s resting place.
Willa: Yes, there’s an area near the main door to Holly Terrace that has become a perpetual memorial site. When we were there, there were fresh flowers and letters and hand-made posters, and that was in November, which isn’t really a special time in the Michael Jackson calendar – not like June or August.
Eleanor: Yes. The terrace outside Holly Terrace has become a gathering place for people who have come to honor Michael. There were a few flowers near the door, and love notes. I went to buy some flowers from the onsite florist, and when I came back a few people were standing around talking quietly. I laid my spray down with the others, and then a very nice older man with an Australian accent spoke to me and said he would fill a vase with some water for my flowers so they would last longer in the hot sun. There was a feeling of such love – the love Michael Jackson gave to us in his art and his life we were giving to each other. It affected me really deeply, brought tears to my eyes.
Willa: That sounds lovely, Eleanor. We didn’t see any fans while we were there, but some fans had been there earlier that morning, and Mr. Macdonald said fans visit pretty much every day. And I was deeply affected being there also – more than I expected. I have to say, I didn’t really feel Michael Jackson’s presence at Forest Lawn. I feel him much more strongly when I’m listening to his music, or watching his short films or concert footage. But it was very moving, and there are aspects of Forest Lawn that make it particularly suited to him, I think.
For example, Dr. Eaton wanted Forest Lawn to be a place filled with statues and paintings, where people without much money could walk in a beautiful place and experience great works of art. So there’s incredible statuary, like very well crafted replicas of Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and a fascinating work called The Mystery of Life by Italian sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri. Here’s a picture:
There’s also an unusual tableau called Christ and the Children by Vincenzo Jerace. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, “Eaton took great joy in recounting the story” of Jerace’s statue:
He would tell listeners that he believed that Christ must have had a wonderful warm personality to draw children and adults to Him. But most art depicted Him either in agony on the cross or with a very somber expression. Eaton searched and searched for a Christ figure that exuded joy. Being unable to find such an artwork, he assembled a group of Italian sculptors and explained his vision. Most of them replied that they could not do that as their religion taught them that Christ had suffered for their sins and it would be improper to show a smiling Christ. One artist, however, Vincenzo Jerace, told Eaton that he would try. The result is this statue that is also known as “the smiling Christ.”
Here’s a picture of the Jerace statue:
Lisha: Wow, that is really beautiful!
Willa: Yes, and I really like the story behind it. There’s also incredible stained glass. There’s the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in stained glass, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, which took Italian artist Rosa Caselli Moretti seven years to create using da Vinci’s original sketches. And there are the Ascension windows in the Jackson alcove. There’s also a wonderful place called the Poet’s Corner on a lower level of the Great Mausoleum, where scenes from poetry have been recreated in stained glass. When Toni and I were there the sun was low in the sky and shining directly through those windows, and it just took our breath away. It was indescribably beautiful.
Lisha: I would love to see that. It sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Willa: Oh it was! I tried taking pictures, but I just couldn’t capture that light. I’m not a very good photographer, I’m afraid …
So what I’m trying to get across is that there’s artwork everywhere at Forest Lawn, both inside the mausoleum and scattered throughout the gardens, and the statues of children especially reminded me very much of Michael Jackson. For example, here’s a statue of a girl and a boy looking up at the engraving of Dr. Eaton’s “Builder’s Creed”:
Eleanor: Hmmm. Reminds me of Neverland.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Willa: I think so too, especially the way they’re holding hands, with a puppy in a wagon. Statues like this are one reason I think Forest Lawn is very well suited to Michael Jackson.
Lisha: You know, not having been to Forest Lawn, I’m having a hard time picturing what a cemetery park looks like, with all the artwork and Michelangelo replicas. It seems so unusual. I found some vacation footage that was posted to YouTube that helped me visualize all of this a little better:
My gut instinct is that Michael Jackson would love this place. In many ways, it seems like the ideal resting place for someone who was so deeply committed to making the world a more peaceful place through beauty and art.
Willa: I agree. It feels right that he should be in such a beautiful place filled with art.
Eleanor: A perfect resting place for an artist, especially a pop artist. Forest Lawn in its early years was a symbol for what is now known as pop culture, but then the juxtaposition of “pop” and “culture” was seen as oxymoronic, if not moronic, reflecting the old British/European snobbery toward the US and its more democratic approach to art, an approach exemplified by American film and popular music. For so long, “culture” and art were identified with the old world, not the new, and with the elite, not the masses.
Willa: Right, and Dr. Eaton wanted to bridge that divide and make “high” art – or at least duplications of high art – available to everyone, including schoolchildren.
Eleanor: It is interesting that Forest Lawn and so many of the people who are buried or entombed there are so closely associated with film, an art form that has struggled to be taken seriously and recognized as art, just as popular music has. And that Forest Lawn came in for some of the same kind of criticism – like that dished out by Mitford and Waugh – that dogged Michael Jackson.
For example, both Forest Lawn and Michael Jackson were accused of “commercialism.” The Los Angeles Magazine described Forest Lawn as a “theme-park necropolis,” paraphrasing Jessica Mitford, indicating “Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.”
Lisha: That’s kind of funny, actually!
Eleanor: Yes, and Mitford’s analysis is probably not too far off the mark. I can’t imagine how much it costs to be laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Willa: Yes, but admission is free. Anyone who wants to visit and walk the grounds and view the artwork is able to do that, free of charge. So in death, the wealthy pay to provide art and serenity to everyone. But I imagine you’re right, Eleanor – I imagine it’s very expensive to purchase a crypt in the mausoleum.
Eleanor: Forest Lawn was viewed by Mitford as turning death into an industry, and film and pop music are also referred to as industries – or lumped in together as the entertainment business – or in LA, just “the business.” Certainly, success in these areas does bring fortune as well as fame. And Michael Jackson was often criticized for his focus on sales.
Lisha: Oh, don’t even get me started on the old art/commerce binary! It’s really time to get past that. I’ve noticed it’s the same critics of commercialism who ignore all Michael Jackson albums except Thriller. As a culture, we’re really stuck in the idea that commercial success and artistry are at odds. It’s as if Michael Jackson is somehow “guilty” of having the best selling album of all time.
Eleanor: I know, Lisha. So depressing. And so wrong! He equated sales not so much with money but as an indicator of how many people he was reaching – and changing – through his art.
Willa: Exactly. I interpret this the exact same way, Eleanor. He was trying to change the world, and he needed a global audience to do that.
Eleanor: Also, his commercial success reflected a level of cultural value not usually accorded to black men. So it was very important – especially to him.
Lisha: I agree with you, Eleanor, and I think this can’t be stressed enough. There’s also the cultural idea that only the “original” work of art is of high value, while any duplicate copy, no matter how skillfully done, is a worthless replica devoid of any “real” artistic value.
It seems to me that kind of thinking plays into the devaluation of recorded music, which is often assumed to be of lesser quality because it is factory duplicated and sold to the masses, rather than being reserved for cultural elites.
Willa: That’s a really interesting connection, Lisha.
Eleanor: And, when you think about it, why should art only appeal to the few, and not the many? Why should it be an acquired taste? Forest Lawn, as a symbol of pop culture, is the perfect resting place for the King of Pop.
Lisha: I would have to agree.
Eleanor: Some critics have dismissed Forest Lawn as sort of a Disneyland for the Dead, but I think Michael Jackson would have seen that more positively, given his appreciation for pop culture and Disney. So maybe he would like the idea of being in a Disneyland for the Dead!
Lisha: Hey! Isn’t that literally true? I mean, isn’t Walt Disney buried there?
Willa: Yes, he is – or rather, there’s a private garden dedicated to him where his ashes were scattered. Here’s a link to a description and photos of his garden, which includes a Little Mermaid statue.
Apparently, Walt Disney and Dr. Eaton were good friends, and Disney wanted to be a pallbearer at Dr. Eaton’s funeral but was too sick from lung cancer to attend. He was listed as an honorary pallbearer instead, and died three months later. His nephew, Charles Disney, was also a close friend of Dr. Eaton’s, and wrote a tribute to him after his death.
Lisha: That’s wild. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I also read there is an wonderful art museum at Forest Lawn. An exhibit is on display there now through the end of the year that features the work of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s legendary animators. He is credited with conceiving some of the amazing background animation in Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.
Willa: Wow, and what could be more appropriate than that, given Michael Jackson’s love of Disney and Peter Pan?
Lisha: I agree. That’s an exhibit I would love to see, and I imagine Michael Jackson would have been quite interested as well.
Eleanor: No doubt about it. Michael Jackson was fascinated by film, especially Disney, and oddly enough the hilly terrain where Forest Lawn is located was once used as a location for films. For example, Birth of a Nation was filmed there.
Lisha: Whoa! Birth of a Nation was actually filmed there, before it became a cemetery?
Eleanor: Yes! Can you believe it!
Willa: Wow, I had no idea. That’s mind-boggling.
Eleanor: I mentioned that to my son and he reminded me that when the film industry was new – and it was very new when Birth of a Nation was made – and before LA grew to its current size, a lot of the land surrounding Hollywood served as locations for films, just as LA itself does today. Given Michael Jackson’s interest in film and his desire to be in film, and the personal significance of Birth of a Nation for him, it’s interesting that his tomb is on what once was its set. (“I ain’t scared of no sheets!”)
Willa: That’s really chilling, isn’t it? It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of Forest Lawn as his final resting place. As Joe Vogel talked about in a post with us last year, Birth of a Nation was incredibly influential in shaping American ideas about film and about race – after all, it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. And Joe sees Black or White as pushing back against that racist history.
So how wonderful that people from around that world now come to that place – the very spot where Birth of a Nation was filmed – to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. What a reversal! That’s incredible.
Lisha: You’re right, Willa, that really does turn the tables, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful way of thinking about this. As you pointed out earlier, visitors show up almost every day to pay their respects to Michael Jackson, as one of the most famous and distinguished artists of our time. That’s a far cry from the racially segregated future that Birth of a Nation imagines. It is so strange to think that film was widely applauded and accepted in its own time.
Eleanor: Yes, really strange. Also, in a related vein, in its early years Forest Lawn was segregated – closed to African Americans, along with Chinese and Jews.
Willa: That’s another important point, Eleanor. And now their most famous “resident” is Michael Jackson, attracting people from around the world. So again, it’s like an act of reclamation.
You know, in the beginning Forest Lawn was pretty exclusionary in their art also. The emphasis of their collection was definitely on white European art and traditions, especially the Italian Renaissance, with Dr. Eaton visiting Europe again and again in pursuit of art for Forest Lawn.
But they have become more inclusionary now, both in terms of who’s buried there and what kinds of art are displayed there. For example, on June 29, 2000, the Dalai Lama visited Forest Lawn to bless a new sculpture – the Shi-Tro Mandala – and they seem very proud of the fact that while he was there he recognized Forest Lawn as “a sacred place.”
Lisha: That’s amazing! I had no idea.
Eleanor: Wow. A sacred place. I love it. Well, it is sacred to me because Michael’s tomb is there. But I like the idea that the Dalai Lama sees it as sacred, too.
Willa: I do too. Well, thanks so much, Eleanor, for making me aware of what a special place Forest Lawn is, and encouraging me to visit!
Lisha: And thanks for joining us today to talk about it. I learned so much from you both.
Eleanor: Thanks again for inviting me.
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!