Willa: Hi Lisha. It’s so great to talk with you again! Though I wish it were under happier circumstances. I’m just heartsick about this Leaving Neverland documentary.
Lisha: Hey Willa! Great to chat with you again too, but I think we’re all heartsick about this film.
Willa: You’re probably right, though I have to say, a part of me also feels some small stirrings of hope. I’m trying not to be overly optimistic, but I wonder if this might actually be the turning point when the mainstream media finally begins to look at the evidence surrounding the allegations. I mean, there was such an outcry following the release of this film, and now it appears that some key statements in it simply aren’t true. So I wonder if that might lead to some sort of public reckoning.
Lisha: I really hope so. Not the “MJ Reckoning” that Slate magazine proposed, with an overkill of largely uncritical, unskeptical articles, but a more careful response to how sexual allegations are mediated in general. Accusations are not proof of a crime, so we need to be cautious about assuming guilt based solely on salacious claims. Especially when huge sums of money are involved, as is the case with the lawsuits that Wade Robson and James Safechuck filed against the Michael Jackson Estate.
Willa: Yes, and the new evidence that’s just come out really raises some questions about their lawsuit filings as well as their testimony in the film. For example, in his lawsuit, James Safechuck claims that Jackson began abusing him in 1988, when he was 10, and continued until 1992, when he was 14. And in the film, he says this abuse often occurred in the train station at Neverland:
At the train station, there’s a room upstairs. And we would have sex up there too. It would happen every day. It sounds sick, but it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it. So it was very much like that.
However, Mike Smallcombe, the author of Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson, investigated this and discovered that the train station didn’t exist at that time. According to county records, the building permit was issued in the fall of 1993.
Here’s a tweet from Smallcombe about this, and it includes an image of the construction permit, with a date stamp of September 2, 1993.
Lisha: Excellent work by Mike Smallcombe!
Willa: I agree! Major kudus for some crucial investigative journalism.
Lisha: It’s amazing how one piece of information can cast doubt on the entire story.
Willa: Or at least make you wonder why Safechuck isn’t being truthful about this. And it appears this part of his story can’t be true, even if you try to force the pieces together to make them fit.
Construction of the train station was completed in 1994, when Michael Jackson was away from Neverland and had a lot going on – the Chandler accusations had become public, he spent quite a bit of time in rehab, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and he was living in New York. He didn’t move back to Neverland until 1995. Here’s an article with additional information, and it includes a brief video clip of the train station segment of Leaving Neverland.
So putting all this together, the earliest any episodes of alleged daily abuse could have occurred in the train station would have been in 1995, when Safechuck was 17. In a response to Smallcombe’s tweet, Dan Reed, the director of Leaving Neverland, replied that the abuse must have gone on for more years than Safechuck originally stated. Here’s a screen capture of Reed’s response.
So Dan Reed is trying to make the pieces fit. And so is a recent Cosmopolitan article which says that “it’s not uncommon for traumatic experiences to muddle memories, including dates and details, for victims.” I imagine that’s true, especially when the victim is a child.
However, extending the period of abuse by three years, so that it continued into 1995 rather than ending in 1992, isn’t just confusing dates. It’s changing the entire arc of Dan Reed’s narrative, which is that Michael Jackson preyed on young boys and then abandoned them as they entered puberty. Safechuck claims that when he was 12 and starting to show signs of puberty, Michael Jackson began to distance himself from him and turn his attention to younger boys. And he says that by the time he was 14, Michael Jackson had painfully rejected him. Daily sexual abuse of a 17-year-old doesn’t fit this narrative at all.
In addition, Safechuck implies in the film that the train station was one of the first places where abuse occurred: “it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it.” So that suggests the late 1980s, when Safechuck was 10 or so. But the train station didn’t exist then. There just doesn’t seem to be any way that all of Safechuck’s claims can be true.
Lisha: Yes, and don’t forget both Safechuck and Robson say they were not traumatized at the time of the alleged abuse. They claim the trauma they experienced came much later – after imagining their own children being abused. So I don’t see how this explanation makes sense. Besides, doesn’t trauma enhance memory rather than distort it? I recall Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last summer, when she explained that traumatic memories are actually much more vivid than normal memory function.
Willa: Well, it’s complicated. People can be traumatized without realizing it – what I mean is, without realizing what an effect the trauma has had on them. For example, a lot of times soldiers with PTSD don’t realize they have it until they are diagnosed.
And as I understand it, sensory memories from traumatic events can be very vivid, while things like dates or, in Christine Blasey Ford’s case, the location of the house where the abuse occurred or the memory of how she got home that evening, can be confused or forgotten.
Lisha: That’s exactly why the police routinely record interviews with victims, witnesses, and suspects. If you ask someone to go on the record and tell what happened, you can nail down their story and try to corroborate it. It’s often the first thing police do – separate all the known parties and ask them to recall what happened. We know that child sexual abuse cases are very difficult to prove because physical evidence of the crime itself is rarely available. So it’s the other elements of the story that need to be corroborated.
Willa: If possible, but sometimes there isn’t much corroborating evidence, especially if victims aren’t able to come forward until years later, after they’ve had a chance to process what happened to them as children. That’s what makes these cases so challenging.
I’ve been doing some research on the Start By Believing campaign, and I understand and support their goals: to prevent victims of sexual assault or abuse from experiencing additional trauma when they tell their stories, encourage other victims to come forward, and tear down the cloak of silence and shame that surrounds sexual abuse. I think those goals are admirable, and I support them.
But when a prosecutor Starts By Believing the victims, as Tom Sneddon did in 1993 and 2003, or much of the media did when Leaving Neverland came out, that presumption of guilt can lead to injustice.
Lisha: I think this is where the Michael Jackson case can contribute to a broader conversation about how we discriminate between false accusations and valid claims of sexual abuse. We cannot simply assume that all accusers give accurate or truthful information.
Willa: Unfortunately, that’s true. And it isn’t just Safechuck. Smallcombe has uncovered contradictory evidence about Wade Robson’s story as well. In the documentary, Robson says the first time he was abused was in 1990, when he was 7 years old and his family left him alone at Neverland while they went to the Grand Canyon. However, Smallcombe unearthed a 1993 deposition where Wade’s mother, Joy, says the entire family went to the Grand Canyon. She also says that the first time she left Wade alone at Neverland was three years later, in 1993 – just a few months before she gave her deposition, so at a time when her memories about these events would have been fresh.
Again, here’s a tweet from Smallcombe:
And here’s an article with additional information.
Lisha: So we know that the information presented in the film cannot be taken at face value. In fact, how do we know anything in the film is accurate?
Willa: That’s a good question, Lisha. Maybe as more evidence emerges, we’ll be able to figure that out. Just as importantly, I hope that information like this may finally force the mainstream media to look back and reevaluate all of the allegations, and actually look at the evidence this time.
Lisha: I do, too.
Willa: Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s a slim hope. I was talking to a friend a couple weeks ago who was editor-in-chief of the local newspaper for many years, and now teaches journalism classes at the local college. He’s a really nice guy and I respect him a lot, but he told me that, to be honest, he’d written Michael Jackson off as a freak a long time ago, regardless of whether he was a child molester or not. He said that evidence about this or that particular point didn’t matter to him. His general feeling about Michael Jackson was already set and not likely to change.
I’m worried a lot of people feel that way, including other journalists. For example, I get the sense from the national media that they don’t care much about the evidence either. Instead, there has been almost universal condemnation of Michael Jackson, as well as public shaming of anyone who dares to defend him.
Lisha: I think this is why we need to step back and think about the cultural response to the film, apart from trying to evaluate every scrap of evidence.
Willa: Hmmm… I still think looking at the evidence is crucial, but that’s a good point, Lisha. I think you’re right – the two have to happen in tandem.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. Uncovering the facts is critical. But what does it say about the culture when a film of this nature – four hours of imagining graphic pedophilic acts – generates so much buzz? It’s worth thinking about why an entertainment product like this has so much appeal.
For me, the worst part of Leaving Neverland has been the relentless, sensationalized media coverage. I really didn’t see that coming. So often it feels like it is coming from one uncritical voice, despite all we’ve learned about these cases over the last six years. The Robson/Safechuck lawsuits have already been dismissed twice, with prejudice. Major outlets reported the claims back in 2013. Plus, Michael Jackson died in 2009! So why did this suddenly explode into public consciousness and generate such a massive response?
Looking back at some earlier media analysis, I see a familiar story. For example, back in 1998 media scholar John Erni described the coverage of the Chandler allegations as both “arduously simplistic and blatantly homophophic,” and I think that still applies. Too many journalists are simply accepting these claims at face value. And in a culture that “tirelessly recycles the myth of gay people as child molesters,” once again we see a homophobic containment of Michael Jackson and difference.
Lisha: But I’m struggling to understand why this narrative has come roaring back with a vengeance. Why now?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. I think maybe it’s because the allegations were presented in a film, like a story, with people that viewers could see and connect with – what psychologists call the “identifiable victim effect.” There was an article about this in Salon recently.
Lisha: Great article! I’m sure that this a big piece of the puzzle.
Willa: Well, you’re probably right, Lisha, that this is only one of several reasons why Leaving Neverland caused such an outcry. But I think it’s an important one. It seems that we as humans are hard-wired to respond emotionally to stories. I think that’s one reason Freud turned to Greek mythology so often when he was mapping out and naming human psychology. (There’s Eros and Narcissus, Oedipus and Electra, … ) It’s like we as humans create stories, but our stories have also created us. Over the millennia our stories have shaped our minds, our cultures, and our understanding of what it means to be human. As a result, our stories are able to move us emotionally in ways that can be hard to fully understand.
So seeing a film like Leaving Neverland, and watching a fellow human tell a horrific story – even one that has been circulating for several years, as Robson and Safechuck’s allegations have – rouses our emotions and affects us very differently than reading a news report about a court case, even if both convey the same information.
Lisha: It’s true that this film relies entirely on affective and emotional capture, which is a totally different way of taking in information than say, reading legal documents. Even if the information is the same, film allows the viewer to evaluate non-verbal information, which can be very powerful.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I noticed that Untouchable, the new documentary about Harvey Weinstein, follows the same approach. It premiered alongside Leaving Neverland at Sundance, and similarly focused on the accuser’s allegations. One reviewer explained it this way:
Newspaper and magazine stories can tell us the details, but cinema, an image- and time-based medium, can do what print cannot. It can make us sit with victims and serve as witnesses while they recount their experiences.
Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. And putting us in that uncomfortable position can be powerful: it can force us to confront harsh realities, unleash strong emotions, and possibly bring about important social changes. But the sheer force of those emotions can also get us into trouble.
Lisha: That’s for sure. I’ve noticed this is where the #MeToo movement has gotten a little wobbly – encouraging us to “believe the victims” while inadvertently cuing us to leave our critical thinking skills behind. Some have even tried to explain the sudden interest in Leaving Neverland as a part of the #MeToo movement. But I tend to think if this were the case, we would have seen a much bigger response to Untouchable and the upcoming trial of Harvey Weinstein – a living, breathing human being.
Willa: The differing reactions to Untouchable and Leaving Neverland are pretty striking when you put them side by side like that, Lisha. I think you’re right that there’s more going on – something that generates a much stronger emotional response for Michael Jackson’s accusers than for Weinstein’s.
And again, we need to be wary of judging the truth of a story based on our emotional reactions. Just because a story is compelling doesn’t mean it’s true. Some of our most emotionally wrenching stories are fiction. But because they move us so deeply, they feel true on some level.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. On a psychological level, I’ve often thought many fictional stories are true! Maybe even more than mere presentation of fact
Willa: I know what you mean. Fiction can convey important psychological truths, even when the storyline is a complete fabrication. In fact, sometimes fiction can express something more profound and move us more deeply than a strict adherence to actual events. I recently saw Never Look Away, an amazing film about art’s ability to express truths that even the artist may not understand. In a recent article, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of Never Look Away, said that “Sticking to every fact and chronology tends to weaken something. Citizen Kane would be a lesser film if it were called Citizen Hearst.”
Willa: I think so too. That comment really struck me. So directors try to convey stories in a way that stirs emotions – they work hard to move our emotions. And those emotions may spark important insights, but they can also lead us astray.
For example, emotions can generate a kind of mob mentality that sweeps people along. I think that’s one reason Michael Jackson watched To Kill a Mockingbird over and over during his trial – to understand how that mob mentality works, especially when a white person accuses a black man of a sex crime. It can be nearly impossible in those situations, when emotions are running so high, to get the general public to pause a moment and not rush to judgment before they’ve considered the evidence.
Lisha: History is littered with these kinds of events and cultural products – Birth of a Nation comes to mind – showing how easily we get trapped by cultural narratives and knee-jerk reactions. Leaving Neverland was crafted to evoke an intense emotional response and that has turned into an effort to modulate Michael Jackson into some kind of cultural folk devil, to use sociologist Stanley Cohen’s term. Because this trial-by-media demonization of Michael Jackson includes calls to ban his music, I think we need to be vigilant in dealing with this cultural moment. Banning music and art is a very dark impulse.
Willa: Well, it’s a complicated subject. I agree we must be vigilant, as you say, anytime we see signs of that sort of mob mentality. Mobs are scary things, especially in person but even online. And it’s troubling that there’s been so little discussion of actual evidence, or the presentation of multiple points of view. For a while there, it seemed like Joe Vogel’s article in Forbes was the only one out there pushing back against Leaving Neverland and the all-too-familiar narrative of Michael Jackson as a sexual predator of young white boys.
But to be perfectly honest, I can understand why most viewers of Leaving Neverland are outraged and feel sympathy for Wade Robson and James Safechuck. I have a dear friend who was sexually abused more than 40 years ago, and it still affects almost every aspect of her life. It was such a deep betrayal. It’s almost impossible to convey in words the effect it has had on her. I have another friend who discovered one day that her husband had been sexually abusing their two children. She told me she went to work that morning thinking she had a strong marriage and a happy family, and by the end of the day everything she thought she knew was turned inside out.
Lisha: That’s heartbreaking, Willa.
Willa: It is. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and completely disorienting. She told me she kept asking herself, How could I have missed this? How could I have misread my husband as a fun, happy extrovert when he had such darkness inside him? How could I have misread his relationship with our children? She really lost confidence in her ability to read people, and I’m not sure she’ll ever fully recover from that.
Lisha: That’s incredibly sad because people who commit these crimes are not proud of their behavior and go to great lengths to hide it. No doubt this was carefully hidden – especially from her. But unfortunately, mothers often take the blame for failing to protect the children – another cultural narrative that deserves more scrutiny.
Willa: That’s true. We see that in Leaving Neverland also.
Lisha: Painfully so.
Willa: Anyway, my point is that I’ve seen how sexual abuse can rip people apart, not just victims but their families too, and I’ve seen the long-term effects it can have on the deepest reaches of a victim’s psyche. So I can understand why most people watching Leaving Neverland would feel shock and anger and disgust.
Lisha: I can certainly understand empathizing with someone who is suffering and wanting to help those who have been victimized. It seems only natural to want to offer as much support and comfort as possible.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: But I also want to think about the victims of false accusations, too. What is missing from the Leaving Neverland conversation for me is an acknowledgement that there has been a heightened cultural awareness of child sexual abuse for decades now, since the 1980s as I recall it. This is not a social problem that we’ve swept under the rug or pretended doesn’t exist. We have been inundated with all kinds of information on child sexual abuse. Oprah alone claims to have made 217 television programs on the topic. At times, the intense interest in this topic has risen to full-blown panic and hysteria. In the words of Mike Lew, author of Victims No Longer (a book that Wade Robson recommends on his website): “One would have to have been living in a cave to be unaware of the reality of sexual child abuse.…”
Along with this heightened awareness of abuse comes the knowledge of how destructive false accusations can be. Just as we see in cases of abuse, false accusations can ruin people’s lives and tear families apart, too. So these claims have to be evaluated very carefully.
Willa: Yes, especially when the accusers are white and the accused is not.
Lisha: Excellent point! Race complicates this discussion exponentially, especially with accusations of black-on-white sexual violence.
Willa: It really does. You know, I grew up in the South, so I’m very aware that those powerful feelings of anger and outrage can be manipulated, especially against men of color. Repeatedly throughout American history, white men have accused non-white or racially ambiguous men of sexually abusing white women and children, and then used the intense fear and anger that resulted for political and financial gain.
For example, this strategy was repeatedly used against American Indians during colonialism to justify the violation of treaties and forfeiture of Indian land. What I mean is, white settlers would spread stories of Indians abducting and abusing white women and children, and then use those stories as justification for driving Indians from land that was rightfully theirs. This strategy had an interesting effect: it allowed white settlers to paint themselves as victims, even as they were committing violence against indigenous peoples and taking their land.
A similar strategy was used against Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and against Mexican immigrants in the 1930s (as well as the 2016 presidential elections) to effect changes in immigration policy. And it has been turned against black men for generations. Thousands of freed black men were lynched in the decades following Reconstruction, and a false accusation of sexual assault was often the justification used to stir up mob violence, destroy successful black businesses and communities, and confiscate black property.
In a 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, journalist Ida Wells suggests these vicious lynchings also had an over-arching political purpose: to suppress freed black people, especially black men, following the abolition of slavery. Wells went on to warn her readers that using a false allegation of rape to justify white-on-black violence had become so prevalent that “it is in a fair way to stamp us a race of rapists.” (By the way, thank you to Eleanor Bowman for sharing Wells’ pamphlet with me. I’ve learned a lot from it. If anyone else would like to read it, the complete text is available here.)
Unfortunately, I think Wells’ prediction came true to some extent – over the decades this narrative did “stamp” African Americans as “a race of rapists” in the minds of many people. So now, a lot of white Americans especially are predisposed to see black men and other men of color as sexual predators. This history has a powerful influence on how whites perceive and respond to black men accused of sexually abusing white women and children. But I think a lot of white Americans either don’t realize this, or don’t want to admit it.
Lisha: Cultural narratives are so much a part of our daily lives that we’re rarely even aware of them – that is, until they get challenged. It’s important to point out that the culture industry (e.g., music and film) is a site where these myths and cultural blind spots are continually reinforced (and sometimes contested). It is one of the ways that the dominant culture holds onto their social advantage.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: This reminds me of a recent article on Leaving Neverland that deals with these issues in terms of cognitive bias, including racial bias, and explains how this impacts viewer response to the film. It is titled “How Your Judgment Can Be Skewed About the Michael Jackson Documentary” and was written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Srini Pillay. Pillay said he had trouble finding a publisher for this piece because it was not in step with dominant media narratives about the film. He of course points out this is also strong evidence of cognitive bias!
Willa: It really is, especially since this is an insightful article from a trustworthy source: a Harvard psychiatrist and brain researcher. It says a lot that he wasn’t able to find someone to publish it.
Lisha: I think that any time we observe the media speaking in one voice, it’s a signal that we’re in a danger zone, culturally speaking. It makes me want to look around and see if I can detect what is hiding just beyond our peripheral vision.
Pillay shows how bias operates in both overt and subtle ways. For example in the documentary, the white accusers are “the only people with a voice or perspective,” while “the alleged black perpetrator not only has no voice, but is dead.” That strikes me as an example of overt racial bias.
But there are more subtle manipulations going on as well. What surprised me most was a study he cited on the “posthumous demonization and criminalization” of black men, showing that “black men are at increased risk of racial bias against them, especially after they die.”
Willa: That surprised me as well.
Lisha: I think that’s incredibly significant here, considering that Michael Jackson has been dead for almost ten years.
Willa: Yes. I’d never thought about the “increased risk of racial bias” black men face after death. They face so much during life! But it does bring to mind Martin Luther King Jr, for example, and everything that was done to tear done his legacy after he died – like all the stories of affairs and one-night stands. Why was that made public, and why then?
Lisha: That’s a perfect example! The struggle for Dr. King’s legacy triggered an old (and still active) cultural myth about black male hypersexuality, and that theme repeats itself in the struggle for Michael Jackson’s legacy.
Willa: I agree completely.
Lisha: Pillay also describes the bias against successful people, which we can think about in relation to Dr. King as well. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about this in a 2005 interview with Bill Maher, in reference to Michael Jackson: “whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots, they’re in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a good point. It’s like the Star is Born effect, where we repeatedly tell the story of a talented person making it big, achieving incredible success, and then crashing and burning. We tell that story over and over again. And it’s especially true of successful black men. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.”
Lisha: It’s practically a national pastime at this point: the “swift and sudden fall from grace.”
Willa: Exactly. In that clip you shared, Lisha, Jesse Jackson describes another phenomenon that’s relevant here too, I think: that Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were reviled when they were alive, and then their image was sanitized and celebrated after they died.
So I think we saw a number of different phenomena with Michael Jackson, at different phases. He was scorned the last decade or so of his life, then celebrated immediately after he died – like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were. But now there seems to be a kind of backlash setting in. Once again he’s becoming “the beast you visualized,” to quote another of his lyrics. It’s like we need him to fulfill that cultural role.
Lisha: Yes, you’re right. It’s that mob mentality again and the impulse to manufacture a cultural folk devil. Now add to that the creativity bias …
Willa: Right, I thought that was a really interesting part of Dr. Pillay’s article too. I mean, just think of the popular image of the famous composer or painter who’s half mad, or think of all the songs or folk tales where an artist makes some sort of pact with the devil to gain success or creativity. There really does seem to be contradictory perceptions of creative people – that they should be celebrated for their talents, but also that there’s something not quite right with them. Michael Jackson explicitly addresses that bias in Ghosts. After all, the main character is a “maestro,” and the village people feel threatened by his creativity as much as anything.
Lisha: There are many cultural narratives about artists – Ghosts rehearses a lot of them. And I think we could even create a subset for popular music. I mean, fill in the blank: Musicians are ________ (sexually promiscuous, drug addicted, reckless, irresponsible…) There’s even a cultural short-hand for it: “Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll.”
Willa: I see what you mean!
Lisha: So there is a lot of complexity driving viewer response to this film, including one more significant factor, which is the final element that Pillay identifies: memory bias. As it turns out, memory isn’t nearly as stable and reliable as we like to believe.
Elizabeth Loftus is a leading memory researcher who flagged the Wade Robson accusations early on as being suspect, especially when initial reports characterized his claims as a repressed memory case. Although Robson walked this back and publicly said that his memories were never repressed, on his website he recommends a popular psychology book, Courage to Heal, that has been widely criticized for promoting the theory of repressed memory. Dr. Loftus addresses this specifically in her own book, but perhaps this is a longer discussion for another time!
Willa: I think so. It sounds like there’s a lot to learn and a lot to unpack about that topic! And I look forward to another discussion. It’s always so great to talk with you, Lisha!
Lisha: In a previous post we talked about the evolution of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, from an unfinished cross-promotional short film for Addams Family Values to a 38-minute musical masterpiece, which curiously, never received a proper release. Both films depict a small town Mayor leading an angry mob as they attempt to force the local “weirdo” out of his home and out of town. Unfortunately, the storyline hits terribly close to home when we consider what actually happened in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: It really does. It’s almost like he could predict what would happen.
Lisha: Eerily so. After years of being harassed by law enforcement and vilified by the media, “an angry mob” from the Sheriff’s Department raided Michael Jackson’s home and attempted to prosecute him based on flimsy “evidence” that frankly, strains credulity. When the facts were presented in a court of law, Michael Jackson was fully exonerated – suggesting the case should never have been brought in the first place.
But even after vindication, Michael Jackson was informed that he was still in danger of malicious prosecution. Despite his wealth, fame, and proven innocence, Michael Jackson abandoned his home and fled the country.
Willa, I know we’re all troubled by what happened in this case, but the more I think about it, the more deeply troubled I am. I’m just not ok with any government authority forcing an innocent man and his family out of their home and out of town. And it greatly disturbs me that this was accomplished in lockstep with the infotainment industry. Journalists are supposed to question authority and investigate abuses of power, not join in the mob mentality!
Willa: Exactly. That’s why the news media is sometimes called the Fourth Estate. We have a government of three branches or “estates” – the presidency, the congress, and the Supreme Court – that are supposed to provide checks and balances on one another, and then the news media is another avenue of checks and balances. That’s where the term Fourth Estate comes from. But what happens when the media fails to provide that review, and instead only adds momentum to abuses of power? It’s really frightening to think about.
Lisha: It’s terrifying. It is crucial in a democracy that the media investigate all branches of government. When they don’t, we have reason to be alarmed. But to be honest, I’m not sure the media or the prosecution has fully understood their actions in the Michael Jackson case.
Willa: Or the implications of their actions.
Lisha: Yes, and I don’t think the general public has stopped to consider what a slippery slope this is either.
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: So I’d like to dig deeper and try to put Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland into some kind of historical context, in an effort to shed light on how something like this could happen in the “land of the free.” Specifically, I’d like to talk about racial politics in the US and the history of banishment that has occurred in African American communities all across the country.
I recently came across a 2007 documentary film titled Banished, directed and narrated by Marco Williams. It really got me thinking about the painful history of banishment in the US and how this history echoes in Michael Jackson’s exodus from Neverland. For anyone who is interested in watching the film, here’s a link:
Willa: We should probably warn everyone that the documentary is about 90 minutes long, but if you can find the time to watch it, it’s well worth it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, Lisha, ever since you shared it with me.
Lisha: Me either, Willa. It’s hard to shake.
Willa: It really is, and it shows there has been a recurring pattern in the US, ever since the Civil War ended slavery as a legal institution, of resentful whites destroying successful black communities and confiscating their property. It generally begins with false accusations against a black man – that he has committed rape or some form of sexual assault against a white woman. Then a white mob gathers, and he is either lynched or threatened with lynching. The violence spreads, other black residents are advised to leave their homes if they want to save their lives, and almost everything they own is lost. The pattern is remarkably similar each time, and there are surprising similarities to the Michael Jackson case.
Lisha: Shockingly so. Especially when you consider that almost every case of banishment begins with an unproven allegation of sexual violence.
Willa: Exactly, but that accusation is just a justification for destroying or confiscating black property, which is the real motive.
What we see over and over again is black homeowners, black business owners, and entire black communities forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. This is especially troubling since I read a study one time that said it generally takes an immigrant family to the US five generations to collect enough assets to be considered comfortably middle class, meaning secure enough where one tragic event like a house fire or the death of a breadwinner won’t send the entire family back into poverty. So if a community loses its property and all of its material assets, it is impoverished not just now but for generations.
Lisha: I agree that the consequences are far-reaching, for the families who have been displaced and for the entire community. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the law actually supported this process. After victims were terrorized and forced to leave their homes, their property was often taken from them, legally, through laws of adverse possession.
While the specific legalities may be different in Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland, the overall contour is identical: someone in the dominant culture is allowed to decide who can or cannot occupy a certain space – regardless of its rightful ownership – and the actions taken to gain control of that space are mysteriously never questioned or fully examined. In the end, black property and wealth are lost, and someone in the dominant culture takes possession of property that was legally purchased by another.
Willa: Yes, in many cases false accusations of sexual misconduct ultimately led to a legal transfer of property, as you say, Lisha. And the individuals who committed violence against black property owners were almost never held accountable for their actions.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. And we’re not just talking loss of property, but loss of life as well. Many, many African American men lost their lives this way. This is a horrific part of our past that I don’t believe has been honorably resolved. In fact, I believe this history lingers on, but in more subtle ways. For example, in a 2003 CNN interview, Jermaine Jackson called his brother’s arrest “nothing but a modern-day lynching” and I’m inclined to agree with him. While I certainly don’t want to minimize the heinous murders that occurred by comparing them to a case that ended in a fair trial and 14 not-guilty verdicts, I agree with Jermaine Jackson that this violent history still plays out in less obvious forms.
Thomas Mesereau gave an interview to Charles Thomson, Jamon Bull, and Q of the MJ Cast on Vindication Day, June 13, 2015, the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s exoneration in court. As Mesereau has stated before, he strongly urged Michael Jackson to leave his home and never return, warning him that he could never be safe there again (about 1:13:17 minutes into the interview):
Bull: Following the verdict, did Michael make it clear to you that he wanted to leave the United States so soon and head to the Middle East?
Mesereau: Not in the least … When I first got into the case and met the prosecutors and met the sheriffs, and went to the evidence locker to examine evidence they had seized and planned to use in the trial, I had a very distinct feeling they were just on top of the world. They were about to embark on the world’s most covered trial. They felt there was no way they could lose it. They were feeling like movie stars and feeling no pain. …
And I remember watching some of these police officers, these sheriffs, as they were doing a second search [of Neverland]. And you know some of them were like, touching his artwork. It was almost a demonic sort of look on their faces like we’ve got the great Michael Jackson under our control. He might be the great Michael Jackson with all this wealth and fame but we control him. And I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental. I mean to me it was like a death penalty case. …
I told [Michael Jackson] to leave Neverland and not return. And he seemed a bit shocked at what I said. … I said he can’t live in peace there ever again. They have ruined it. I didn’t know where he was going to go. I did not know he was going to the Middle East until he started calling our office from the Middle East. But I strongly urged that he leave and not return. I said, you know, many things in life have a time and a place. Neverland has run its course. You will not be safe there. You know you can’t go through one of these things again.
So Michael Jackson abandoned Neverland, fearing what prosecutors would do to him and his family.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t heard this interview before. Thank you for sharing it. Mesereau’s description of the police at Neverland is just chilling, especially the part about them “touching his artwork” and seeming eager to have “the great Michael Jackson under our control.” It’s horrifying to think about what the police could have done, or what could have happened to him in prison. As Mesereau said, “I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental.” Looking at it this way, I think he was right to treat Michael Jackson’s trial like a death penalty case.
Lisha: I agree. This was no trivial matter. It’s quite clear to me that what happened to Michael Jackson was an act of violence and that he was forced to leave his home in terror. While the violence may take a different form than we’ve historically seen with lynchings, shootings and banishment, nonetheless, violence and terror were inflicted on Michael Jackson. The end result is that he was forced to flee his home and he nearly lost his freedom and his family too. He also suffered tremendous financial losses. By 2008, the AP reported that “Michael Jackson has given up title to his Neverland ranch, transferring the deed to a company he partly controls.”
So as we know, Michael Jackson did lose control of Neverland and it is now for sale. I’ve heard speculation that his Estate may not profit at all from the sale, depending on the final purchase price. Personally, I’m not willing to entertain any theory that Michael Jackson’s complicated debt structure was the cause of this loss, without first taking into account the untold millions that law enforcement and the media cost him.
Willa: Exactly. Blaming the loss of Neverland on his rising debts misses the point, which is that the false allegations against him severely damaged his career and his income, causing him to go into debt. As the article you just cited says, “Jackson has struggled to pay his debts since his financial empire began to crumble following his arrest in 2003.” Actually, the problem began much earlier, with the 1993 allegations.
So as in the three cases studied in the Banished documentary, racial jealousy and false claims of sexual misconduct against a successful black man led to loss of property. It’s tragic, especially when you think of how much he loved Neverland, and how hard he worked to make it a special place where he could feel safe from prying eyes.
Lisha: It is tragic. And there is a direct causal link between the false allegations, the official response to them, and the loss of income and property sustained. Many of the losses can be calculated quite precisely in cold hard cash, like the canceled endorsement deals and movie offers. But Michael Jackson’s home and livelihood were so much more than just a place to live and a way to earn a living.
Willa: Yes, Neverland was much more than a home, and his art was so much more than a source of income. It was his life. It really is heartbreaking.
Lisha: It is.
Willa: But it’s heartbreaking when anyone loses their home. And when we look at this through a historical lens, it becomes very clear that this is part of a larger pattern.
Lisha: I agree. It’s a larger pattern of violence attempts to disguise the intolerance at its root.
Willa: Absolutely. I recently found another documentary called The Night Tulsa Burned and it focuses on one specific case of banishment: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot of 1921, which left as many as 300 people dead and 8,000 people homeless. According to a 2011 features article in The New York Times, it “may be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in United States history.” Here’s a link to that documentary, which is about 45 minutes long:
Lisha: I’m so glad you shared this, Willa, because for me, the Tulsa riot shows so clearly why even in 2016, we are still fighting for racial justice and “Black Lives Matter.”
Historian Jelani Cobb recently pointed out in a New Yorker article that although the Tulsa race riot was one of the worst incidents of domestic terrorism in US history, it is rarely referred to that way:
The F.B.I. Web page on the [Oklahoma City] Murrah bombing lists it as “the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history.” That designation overlooks the Tulsa riots of 1921, in which a white mob, enraged by a spurious allegation that a black teen-ager had attempted to assault a young white woman, was deputized and given carte blanche to attack the city’s prosperous black Greenwood section, resulting in as many as three hundred black fatalities. From one perspective, the Murrah bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history, but, as the descendants of the Greenwood survivors know, it was likely not even the worst incident in Oklahoma’s history.
Cobb makes a very important point: loss of black life is often diminished or forgotten when the dominant white culture historicizes the past. A big reason for this in the Tulsa case is that law enforcement and the media actually participated in the violence. A local newspaper put out false, inflammatory information to incite the riot, and law enforcement stood by and watched as approximately 300 black Tulsans were murdered. Believe it or not, the National Guard took over 6,000 black citizens into custody while their homes and businesses were being destroyed. And no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the terrorism that happened that day.
Willa: Yes. It sounds unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened. In fact, the more you learn about the details of the riot, the more outrageous it becomes. Apparently a black teenager, Dick Rowland, who worked at a shoeshine stand in downtown Tulsa, was entering an elevator so he could visit one of the few bathrooms that was available to blacks in that segregated city. It seems he tripped as he entered the elevator and fell against the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page. He was accused of assaulting Page and arrested, but she refused to press charges, and many prominent white businessmen came to his defense, saying that wasn’t in his nature.
However, rumors of the incident spread, and that afternoon The Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory article that accused Rowland of either rape or attempted rape. That evening, a mob of about 2,000 whites gathered at the courthouse, and violence erupted. The police resisted the mob and protected Rowland from lynching, but they didn’t arrest the white men who were leading the mob. Instead, they arrested thousands of black men, as you say, Lisha, and put them in detention centers, leaving their homes and businesses defenseless.
White men with torches then swept through the Greenwood district of Tulsa, setting fire to black homes and businesses. In the documentary, one riot survivor, George Monroe, describes what happened this way:
I will always remember four men coming in our house with torches. My mother saw them coming and she put the four of we children under the bed. And from under the bed we could see them walking to the curtains and setting fire to the curtains to set our house on fire.
I find this image of the white mob descending on Greenwood with flaming torches in hand eerily evocative of the opening scenes of Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly! I do too. Monroe’s childhood memory is just so horrific. Like the story in Ghosts, the mob didn’t enter Greenwood looking for a criminal (they knew Rowland was already in custody). The mob went to Greenwood to force people out who they believed were different from them, despite the fact they were on their own property and legally entitled to the same rights and protections everyone else had.
Willa: That’s a very important point, Lisha – Rowland was in jail when the mob descended on Greenwood. That really underscores the fact that the false allegations against Rowland were just an excuse. That’s not what the riot was really about. The true motivation was racial jealousy.
Before the riot, the Greenwood district was one of the wealthiest black communities in the US – an area so prosperous Booker T. Washington called it Negro Wall Street. In the economic expansion of the late 1910s and early 1920s – a period known as the “Roaring Twenties” because it was such a boom time, financially – many businessmen became very wealthy, including black businessmen. And as historian Scott Ellsworth notes in the documentary, “For some white people, a black person with any wealth, then as well as today, is something that created jealousy.” So as black wealth increased, race riots broke out across the nation. As Ellsworth goes on to say,
The important thing to remember about race riots during this period is that they are characterized by whites invading black communities … attacking black businesses, attacking black homes.
So the allegations of sexual misconduct were simply a pretext, a way to justify white aggression against black property owners, when the real motivation was racial jealousy and a blatant land grab.
Lisha: Yes, that is the pattern. When black success occurs, economic jealousy, unproven allegations, and white-on-black violence follows. The false accusations of rape are even more infuriating if we look at the very real problem of white-on-black sexual violence that has occurred all throughout US history.
Willa: Yes, that’s a painful legacy with roots deep in our history. The rape of black women by white slave owners was a common practice for centuries before the Civil War. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a US President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, had children by one of his slaves – a woman who was herself the (black) daughter of his (white) father-in-law, so his wife’s half-sister. It seems to have been tacitly accepted that white men should have access to black women’s bodies.
However, black men were prohibited from white women’s bodies, even through marriage. Miscegenation was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court finally struck down those laws in 1967. The merest hint of sexual relations between a black man and a white woman, even if it were consensual, remained an inflammatory issue, and many black celebrities were targeted because of this, as if (white) authorities were making an example of them. We see this with Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, Malcolm X, and many others.
Michael Jackson talked about this in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson:
The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars, just to get him some kind of way.
Jack Johnson’s unacceptable “position and lifestyle” that Michael Jackson mentions include his title as heavyweight champion of the world, his flamboyant displays of wealth, and his numerous relationships with white women, including three marriages. Because of his success and his defiance of racial expectations, he was targeted by white authorities and sent to prison under the Mann Act. That’s what Michael Jackson was referring to when he said “they changed laws to imprison the man.”
Lisha: Yes, apparently the Mann Act was originally intended to prevent women from being lured into interstate prostitution. The law had to be bent considerably in order to prosecute Jack Johnson. Legally, it’s hard to believe it was used to send him to prison.
Willa: Yes, and that same law was later used to imprison Chuck Berry. There was an attempt to use it against Michael Jackson as well, as Charles Thomson talked about in a post with Joie and me about Michael Jackson’s recently released FBI files. As Charles said, the files reveal that “Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act.”
Lisha: I don’t know how much clearer the connection could be between black success and government persecution, really.
Willa: Yes. Michael Jackson himself clearly saw his case as part of a long history of white authorities targeting successful black figures. For example, when Jesse Jackson asked him, “How are you handling it?,” he replied,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Lisha: It stands to reason that black celebrities are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack, precisely because of their wealth and success. This is especially true of those who refuse to fit the mold of the “model minority,” such as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson. Ali publicly stated that he strongly related to the Jack Johnson story. It’s unsurprising that Michael Jackson identified with both their stories as well.
Here’s something that has been bugging me for a while that I’ve really wanted to talk to you about – it’s Bill Maher’s response to the Jesse Jackson interview you just mentioned. In the past, I’ve considered Bill Maher to be one of our smartest comedians. But have you seen this clip of him belittling Michael Jackson while trying to get Rev. Jackson to denounce his interview with him? It’s disturbing to me how this commentary generates so much laughter:
Willa: I agree the audience’s laughter is very troubling, and so is Bill Maher’s handling of this. I mean, they laugh because he cues them to laugh. But it’s interesting to look at what Maher is saying. He begins by telling Jesse Jackson,
He [Michael Jackson] compared himself this week to Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela. Now, as a civil rights leader who has really, really faced the battlements – I mean, you were there with Martin Luther King when he was shot, you marched, I mean, you faced the firehoses – this has gotta bother you. …
This must upset you when people take this when it’s really not a racial issue.
So Bill Maher seems to think that racism was something that happened in Alabama in 1965, not something that was still happening in California in 2003. The police response to Martin Luther King is clearly racism to Maher, but he doesn’t see how the police handling of the Michael Jackson case also fits a pattern of racism.
But I thought Jesse Jackson’s response to Maher was brilliant:
We all love Nelson Mandela tonight. For 27 years we saw him as a terrorist. We’ve loved him since 1990 [when he was released from prison]. We all love Dr. King today. He was killed as one of America’s most hated men with a target on his back. We all love Jack Johnson now. He was locked out of the ring because of his race.
And so the point is, whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line, and that’s the basis of his statement.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa, Rev. Jackson nailed it. His response is nothing less than brilliant.
Willa: It really is. First, it puts Michael Jackson’s statement within a historical context that shows there is in fact a pattern of targeting successful black cultural and political leaders. As Jesse Jackson says, “when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire.”
Even more importantly, to my mind, is Jesse Jackson’s point that Nelson Mandela was not a beloved figure when he was in prison, Martin Luther King was not beloved when he was leading marches and pressuring Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Johnson was not beloved when he was challenging the supremacy of the white race in and out of the boxing ring. These figures are treated as respected icons now, when they are gone and no longer a threat, but that’s not how they were treated when they were standing up and challenging white authority. They were harshly criticized and even ridiculed at the time, and so was Michael Jackson.
Lisha: Well said. I’m so glad that Rev. Jackson tactfully pointed out that although Maher can cite some significant events in the past, he still suffers from historical amnesia. He doesn’t see how the past reverberates in the events unfolding right before him.
I was especially interested in how Rev. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. West’s responses differed from Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin. Jackson, Goldberg and West are reluctant to assume the police allegations and media reports are correct, and they don’t seem to find a lot of pleasure in joking about them. Although West is not yet convinced of how grave Michael Jackson’s situation is, he expresses concern that he be given a fair trial. He does not automatically assume that will happen. Maher and Baldwin, on the other hand, take the law enforcement and media narratives at face value and they seem quite entertained by the idea that Michael Jackson got arrested. This effectively divides the conversation across racial lines.
Both Maher and Baldwin indicate they believe Michael Jackson is guilty of something, no proof necessary, and that the charges against him are in no way related to racial persecution. Again, it bothers me that they both find it so humorous, especially after Rev. Jackson just explained that Michael Jackson was denied dignity and due process.
Maher: But is that because he’s black? Really? If this was country singer Alan Jackson sleeping with young boys…?
Baldwin: …You’re at your home and you are inconceivably wealthy. And someone comes into your home and you give them the booze and you’re watching the internet porn and you’re doing this. Then that guy runs out the door and he sues you for trying to do something. You got everything coming to you that you deserve because you’re an idiot that you would put yourself in that position. He’s a dumbass that he put himself in that position.
Their statements assume the following unproven “facts”: (1) sleeping with boys, (2) giving them booze, and (3) watching internet porn. Yet when you look at the evidence, it’s clear these aren’t facts at all. It’s revealing that these assumptions are made by the two white panelists, while everyone else has a “not so fast” attitude in accepting the prosecution/media version of events. When we look at the history of racism in this country, it’s not hard to figure out why people of color don’t automatically assume prosecutors and the media are telling the truth.
Willa: That’s true. I also thought Jesse Jackson raised a very important point when he said that how we see Nelson Mandela now, and Martin Luther King and Jack Johnson now, is very different than how they were seen at the time. History isn’t fixed – it’s constantly being rewritten.
That’s why it’s so important that Michael Jackson’s supporters raise these issues, and keep raising them, until the allegations against him are seen in their proper context. The story of Michael Jackson’s life is still being written, as Toni Bowers addressed so well in a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it’s up to those of us who care to help write that history.
Lisha: I agree. Michael Jackson fans play an important role by interrogating the media and the government’s response to him. It’s important to keep talking!
Willa: So Joie, on a number of occasions when asked about the scandals that surrounded him, and the way the media turned against him and really vilified him in later years, Michael Jackson suggested that one cause was jealousy. And I always interpreted that to mean that certain individuals (like Evan Chandler) were jealous of him, and that’s certainly true.
But then Lisha McDuff, Harriet Manning, and I did a post a few weeks ago about blackface minstrelsy and how it was motivated in part by envy – racial envy. And then the other day I was listening to a 2002 phone interview with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and radio host, and I was really struck by the fact that when Michael Jackson talked with him about jealousy, he said “us” – not “me” but “us,” that people are jealous of “us” – and I think that “us” means successful black entertainers.
It’s funny – that one little word opened my eyes to a completely different way of interpreting what he’d been saying all those years. It seems to me now that he’s not talking so much about personal jealousy, though of course that’s part of it, but about racial jealousy – the jealousy of whites against successful blacks. As he tells Steve Harvey,
They hate to see us grow and build and build, and there’s nothing wrong with that [with growing]. They can and it’s ok. What can I do but reinforce the talent that God gave me? That’s all I want to do, is share the love and gift of entertainment. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Here’s the interview, and the part about jealousy starts about 8 minutes in:
Joie: I had forgotten all about this Steve Harvey interview, Willa. And speaking as a Black American, I agree that he’s talking about race when he makes his jealousy statement.
You know, this is actually an issue that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years. Michael’s statement that, “They hate to see us grow and build” is a very real phenomenon in our society, and it has been going on since the birth of our nation. Or rather, I should say, since the end of slavery in our nation. And he wasn’t just talking about successful black entertainers. He was talking about any Black American who has found great success in whatever field they happen to work in, whether they’re famous or not. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the prevailing factors for all the backlash President Obama has seen during his time in office.
Willa: I agree. Part of the backlash – against Michael Jackson and Obama as well – is caused by racial prejudice, I think, but I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of jealousy – racial jealousy. That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting that Michael Jackson’s words seem pretty obvious to you and not so obvious to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, and it gets back to the idea of “language and power” that we talked about with Bjørn in a post a while ago – that Michael Jackson is using language in a subtle way so that it means different things to different listeners.
You know, if we look at his exact words, he’s speaking in a pretty indirect way. He never says the words “black” or “white,” and actually never mentions race at all. But still, if a listener is familiar with that ongoing conversation that you’re talking about, Joie – one “that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years,” as you say – then his words are obvious, but if a listener isn’t aware of that context, then that just goes right past them. So I wonder if he’s speaking in a careful way with two distinct audiences in mind – specifically, if he’s talking in a way that immediately resonates with blacks, but doesn’t alarm or offend whites because we don’t really get what he’s saying.
Joie: It’s interesting to me that you think that, Willa. That he’s talking in some sort of code or something in order to connect with the black audience but not alarm or offend the white audience. Because to me – and probably to any other black person listening to this interview – he’s not speaking in a careful way at all. In fact, when I listen to this interview, I hear him speaking in a very relaxed, very open way. He’s not being cautious and careful with what he says because he knows that there’s no reason to. He’s speaking to another black entertainer, and his two black co-hosts, on a radio show geared toward a black audience. He obviously felt very comfortable with his surroundings in that moment. And he obviously knew that he was among people of a similar background (the Black American experience) who would understand immediately what he was talking about. So there was no need to speak “in a very careful way with two distinct audiences in mind.” So, I’m saying that I don’t think he was purposely talking in code or anything.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie – he does sound relaxed and comfortable. But still, a lot of things are left unsaid, like the words “black” and “white.” It’s like there are gaps between his words. And he’s not just speaking to a black audience – radio waves go out to everyone – and whether it’s intentional on his part or not, I think different listeners interpret his words very differently. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they fill in the gaps differently.
There’s a similar situation in the song “Ghosts,” which was written after the 1993 allegations and strip search. Here’s the chorus:
And who gave you the right to scare my family?
And who gave you the right to scare my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to hurt my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
You put a knife in my back
Shot an arrow in me
Tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?
A sucking ghost of jealousy?
He’s talking about the false accusations and the strip search (“who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?”) as well as the scandals that followed, and once again he suggests the real motivation behind them is “jealousy.” He never mentions race, and I never interpreted it that way – as racial jealousy. I thought he was just saying that Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon and Diane Dimond and all those other figures working so hard to bring him down were envious of him and his success. But now I’m wondering if I was misunderstanding him – that he was talking specifically about racial jealousy – something Harriet mentioned was part of blackface minstrelsy, and a much larger cultural narrative as well, for more than a century.
Joie: Ok, I guess I see where you’re going with this. And when I think about it, there were no accusers or “other figures working so hard to bring him down” as you say that I can think of who were black. So, maybe you’re on to something.
Willa: Well, that’s true – none of the people working hardest to smear him were black, unless you count Stacy Brown. Just as importantly, it’s very interesting how different people reacted whenever he suggested – however indirectly – that the scandals plaguing him were tinged with racism or racial jealousy.
For example, in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson said that the public persecution he faced “has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” When Jesse Jackson asks him, “How are you handling it?” he replies,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars just to get him some kind of way. And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Here’s a link and the discussion of race starts about 4:15 in. It’s an astute reading of his situation, I think, and places the false allegations against him – and the police and public response to those allegations – within a context of other successful black pioneers who have been targeted by the authorities.
However, his words caused outrage, as well as some pretty snide remarks. In an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times, a white academic, Elaine Showalter, wrote this:
Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality.
Elaine Showalter was a groundbreaking feminist scholar in the 1980s – I read some of her work back then and had a lot of respect for her – and I can’t believe she of all people would be so oblivious and write something so simplistic and so snootily patriarchal. This is really troubling, I think, in many different ways – not the least being her assumption that, because his skin is no longer dark, he’s somehow disqualified from talking about race or pointing out the racism that surrounds him.
Joie: Yes, that remark is incredible, isn’t it? And you just want to ask her, you know … if she had suddenly found herself with a disease … let’s say breast cancer for instance, and had to have both her breasts removed, would she suddenly not be a woman anymore?
Willa: Wow, Joie. That’s a powerful question. I never thought of it like that before …
Joie: Or if there was a disease out there that caused a white person’s pigment to darken, would she no longer be allowed to identify herself as Caucasian? I mean, she’s not just saying he’s disqualified from pointing out the racism that surrounds him. She is saying that he no longer has the right to identify with the black race. That he no longer has the right to call himself a Black American. Her very comment is incredibly racist on so many levels.
Willa: That is really interesting, Joie. When you reverse the situation, it really highlights just how much she’s talking from a privileged position, doesn’t it? Why does a white person feel she has a right to decide if a black person is black enough to suit her? That isn’t just incredibly offensive, it’s nonsensical. I can’t imagine a black person ever saying that about a white person.
I mean, picture a person with two white parents who grew up in a white community, as Michael Jackson did with two black parents in a black neighborhood in Gary. And then try to imagine some sort of circumstance where a black person would say that person wasn’t white enough to speak from a white perspective. I just don’t think it would ever happen, and it wouldn’t make sense if it did because we don’t have a cultural history of blacks forcing whites to meet their expectations of whiteness. But we have a very long history of whites forcing blacks to fit white definitions of blackness, as Lisha and Harriet and I talked about.
But I shouldn’t oversimplify this. It wasn’t just whites who reacted badly to the Steve Harvey interview. An opinion piece by Sinclere Lee in Black News Weekly was just as snarky:
If Michael Jackson is guilty of anything and should go to jail, for, it’s when he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. I know Nelson Mandela! I met Nelson Mandela when he came to Washington! Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world! Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in prison to free the Blacks in South Africa, and you can’t do a day in jail! Michael, don’t believe that shit Jesse Jackson is telling you, you are no Nelson Mandela!
Joie: And to me, this is a ridiculous statement because Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson for that matter, both knew Nelson Mandela personally as well. Michael didn’t simply “meet” the man when he came to Washington. He knew Mandela very well. He and Mandela were actually very close friends for many, many years.
And Michael wasn’t comparing himself to Mandela in that comment. He was saying that he uses Mandela’s story as a source of inspiration to deal with the blatant racism he was experiencing. There is a huge difference.
Willa: I agree completely, Joie. And what can possibly be wrong with saying that Nelson Mandela inspired him?
But while this article is just as bad as the Showalter piece in some ways, there’s an important difference, I think. While Lee criticizes Michael Jackson for comparing himself to Mandela (which he doesn’t do, as you pointed out), she doesn’t scoff at the idea that racism is involved, the way Showalter does.
Joie: That’s true, she doesn’t. In fact, she never even veers off in that direction. Her main focus is simply the fact that she was personally offended by the thought that Michael was comparing himself to such a great freedom fighter.
Willa: Exactly. And I think that difference is subtle but important. Elaine Showalter seems to think it’s ludicrous to suggest that racism played a role in determining how Michael Jackson was treated by the police and the press (while I think it’s incredibly simplistic to assume racism wasn’t involved) but Sinclere Lee doesn’t make such a naive assumption. While a white academic may think racism played no part in it, Lee knows better.
Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, sometimes I wonder if you could take a poll now that everything is over and done with and Michael is no longer with us … how many people today, white and black, would admit that race played a factor in how he was treated by the press and the police? You know, now that we’ve all gotten a little distance and perspective. I wonder what people think today. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does, and that’s another really interesting question, Joie. My sense is that feelings about Michael Jackson have softened a lot since he died, and people are much more likely to see him as innocent now that he’s gone. We talked about that in a post last spring. But I don’t think people in general – and white people in particular – are ready to acknowledge what a huge influence race and racism had on how the allegations were perceived by the police, the media, and the public. The idea of racial prejudice, and especially racial envy, makes whites very uncomfortable, I think, and most whites don’t want to even consider it. But the more I think about this, the more I think Michael Jackson was absolutely right, and racial jealousy was at the heart of it.
I mean, it’s very interesting to really look at what people are actually saying at different points, and how they’re saying it. Look at what Evan Chandler tells him the last time they meet. He points his finger at him and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” The implication seems to be that Michael Jackson has risen too high, and now Evan Chandler is determined to take him down.
Randy Taraborrelli expresses a similar idea in his biography. Based on Chandler’s accusations, the police conduct a strip search, and here’s how Taraborrelli leads into his description of what had to be a humiliating and truly horrible experience:
The bottom line is that Michael has done whatever he wanted to do for most of his life, living in a world of privilege and entitlement simply because of who he is. … However, in December of 1993 Michael was about to experience, if just for one day, what it might be like to live in the real world, where people often have to do things they may not necessarily want to do.
This passage is so shocking to me. You would think Taraborrelli’s focus would be on the evidence, and whether the strip search confirms or contradicts Chandler’s accusations – supposedly that’s the point of it, after all – but it isn’t. Taraborrelli is much more focused on the psychological impact of the strip search, and the effect it will have on how Michael Jackson sees himself and positions himself in the world. Taraborrelli seems very critical of Michael Jackson “living in a world of privilege and entitlement,” and now the strip search is going to bring him back down to “the real world,” and Taraborrelli speaks approvingly of that. He seems to think it’s appropriate that Michael Jackson will be brought down, “if just for one day.” And it really feels to me that Taraborrelli’s words express quite a bit of jealousy.
Joie: Well, you know how I feel about Taraborrelli, and I believe that there are several spots in that book where he comes off as jealous of his subject. So, I agree with you completely on that statement.
Willa: But is it jealousy because of his wealth and his celebrity? Or is it racial jealousy? Or is it a combination of both – is he jealous that a black man, especially, has been so successful? I really wonder about that, especially since both he and Evan Chandler talk specifically about the need to bring Michael Jackson “down.”
That language and imagery of bringing him down reminds me of a horrifying scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that we talked about in a very painful post a long time ago. Rosa, a beautiful young slave, a teenager, tries on a dress belonging to her owner, Maria. Maria walks in and sees her wearing it, becomes furious, and sends Rosa to the whipping house. Here’s Maria’s explanation for why she orders such an extreme punishment for such a trivial offense:
She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!
So Maria isn’t angry so much because of the dress, but because it’s a sign that Rosa “forgets who she is” – that she is a young black woman, and a slave. Maria feels very threatened by that, especially since in many ways Rosa is more truly “lady-like” in her looks and bearing than Maria is. So Maria intends to shame her and remind her of “who she is,” and scorch it into her memory so severely she’ll never forget again. In other words, Maria wants to bring about a psychological change in Rosa, and “give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
It seems to me that’s exactly what Taraborrelli is talking about with the strip search – that it will cause a psychological change in Michael Jackson that will “bring him down” from his “world of privilege and entitlement.” And it’s what Evan Chandler is talking about when he points his finger and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” And I think it’s what Michael Jackson himself is referring to in “Morphine” when he sings, “I’m going down, baby.” He’s being brought down by the same impulse that brought down Rosa more than 150 years ago.
Joie: That’s an interesting comparison, Willa. And one you’re probably right about. But, I guess what I’m getting at is, I wonder if people’s attitudes about the whole situation … and really about his whole life … I wonder if their attitudes are truly shifting and softening, or if it’s simply a case of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Do you know what I mean?
Willa: I do, but I don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure people themselves know why their feelings have changed, or how deeply they’ve changed. Or what truly motivated their feelings against him to begin with. I mean, maybe feelings have softened because he’s gone, and because there’s no reason to feel threatened or jealous of him any longer.
Joie: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why it matters or why that question sort of haunts me. I guess I just feel like here was this special, beautiful, talented, loving man who only wanted to make the world happy, and he was ridiculed and persecuted and hated for it. That bothers me.
Joie: So, Willa … I was thinking about how we’re already into our third year of this blog and all the wonderful posts we’ve done and the amazing conversations we’ve had. You know, we’ve talked about so many different aspects of Michael Jackson’s artistry, from his songs and short films to his impact on an entire generation of people and his contributions to music, fashion, pop culture and humanity. And during all those conversations, there’s actually a topic we haven’t really touched on at all, and I’m amazed that we’ve overlooked it. I’m talking about Remember the Time, both the song itself as well as the short film. In all of the conversations we’ve had the past two years, I don’t think we’ve mentioned it much. Have we?
Willa: No, we haven’t, and it’s a great one to talk about! But we haven’t talked about a lot of incredible work – short films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Scream, as well as other visual art and music and dance. Not to mention the unreleased songs and films, or the classical music he composed that hasn’t even been recorded yet. He left behind a huge body of work.
Joie: So, Remember the Time is actually one of Michael’s greatest short films, in my opinion. Partly because it has such a wonderful and entertaining cast – Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson all simply shine in their roles in this video.
Willa: That’s true, and the relationships between them and the characters they play is interesting as well. For example, Iman’s character, an Egyptian queen, is married to Eddie Murphy’s character, the Pharaoh. But you get the impression she really wants Michael Jackson’s character, a magical/musical mystery man with many hidden talents. The Pharaoh realizes this and feels very threatened by it, so he orders his guards. But while they’re running around chasing this mysterious figure, he’s off having a passionate moment with the Queen in her private chambers.
This is all kind of funny if you remember that, in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy repeatedly made fun of Michael Jackson on Saturday Night Live and in his comedy routines on the Delirious tour and others, implying in not so subtle ways that Michael Jackson wasn’t “masculine” enough. But watching Remember the Time, you get the impression his “wife,” the Queen, doesn’t agree.
Joie: That’s funny, Willa. I had never made that connection before. Of course, I’ve seen those Eddie Murphy skits over and over, but I never thought about them in terms of the Remember the Time video. That’s interesting.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, they really seemed to respect each other a lot, professionally, but there was an edge to it sometimes – just like there’s some animosity between their characters in this film. And there’s definitely an edge between the magician/musician and the Queen as well. It’s presented as an illicit romance, but there’s more to it than that. The Queen demands to be entertained, and when the first two performers don’t please her, she has them executed. So then the magician/musician tries his hand, and he’s drawn to her but seems kind of angry with her too – and you can see why.
Joie: Hmm. Actually I’m not sure that I know what you mean, on either point. With Eddie Murphy, I don’t feel like there was an edge to their friendship at all. I think it seemed really genuine. Those old skits you were talking about before, Michael said once that he thought they were really funny, and he was impressed with Eddie’s singing voice when he would mimic him. So I don’t think there was an edge to it at all.
Willa: Well, you’re right – Eddie Murphy does have a wonderful voice …
Joie: And in the video, the interaction between Michael’s character and Iman’s – I don’t feel that he’s angry with her. To me, the storyline created by the video is one of lost love. They obviously share a romantic history with each other, she is surprised to see him there in the palace that she now shares with her husband the Pharaoh, and he is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) asking her if she remembers “them” – how much in love they were, what they meant to one another. I don’t see him being angry with her.
Willa: That’s funny that we see this all so differently, Joie! My feeling is that Eddie Murphy respected Michael Jackson a lot for his talent and his charisma and his massive sales, but he didn’t understand him at all. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Murphy told him once, “I love Michael, but he is strange.”
Joie: Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t give too much credence to anything Taraborrelli says.
Willa: Well, ok, but it is true that Eddie Murphy ridiculed Michael Jackson a lot in his comedy sketches. I remember seeing a skit on Saturday Night Live a long time ago where he was holding a Michael Jackson doll and basically talking about how effeminate it was. And then at the end of the skit, he pulled the pants off the doll, pointed out it didn’t have any man parts – as if dolls generally do – and said something about it being anatomically accurate. It kind of shocked me, to be honest, just how harsh it was. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it so maybe I’m remembering it as worse than it was, but as I remember it had a very ridiculing tone to it.
I think Eddie Murphy did things like that primarily because he’s a guy-guy, a masculine fellow in a very traditional sense of the word, and he mocked Michael Jackson for not conforming to that – for attempting to redefine what it means to “be a man,” as we talked about with Bad in a post last fall. But while Michael Jackson may not have been macho in the traditional sense, he had an uncanny power that he exercised in gentle ways. We see a glimpse of that in this clip from the 1989 American Music Awards:
It’s a funny clip, but it’s interesting that Eddie Murphy starts to help him with the microphone “like I was working for him or something,” and then stops himself, like it’s beneath his dignity: “Wait, what am I doing?”
But even more importantly, I think, is that they see themselves, their careers, and their cultural function in very different ways. Eddie Murphy sees himself as an entertainer, while Michael Jackson was both an entertainer and an artist – and that’s a huge difference. An entertainer tries to please his audience and give them what they want – like the entertainers who try to please the Queen in the video. And as an entertainer, I think Eddie Murphy thought Michael Jackson was “strange” for not doing that – for not just giving us what we want.
But Michael Jackson had the vision of an artist as well as an entertainer, and artists don’t always try to please us. In fact, sometimes they defy us or make us angry or uncomfortable, or even reshape our desires and force us to question what it is we really want, and why – kind of like his character does with the Queen. He doesn’t just entertain her – he unsettles her as well.
Joie: I understand what you’re trying to say, Willa. But I think it’s a little presumptuous of us to state that we know for certain how Eddie Murphy sees himself, his career or his cultural function. I think it’s much safer to say that you feel this is how he sees things, but you don’t really know that. In fact, for all we know, Eddie Murphy doesn’t even think of himself or his career in terms of his “cultural function” at all. That thought may never have even crossed his mind before. It’s simply an idea that you’re placing on him.
And I would be willing to bet that Eddie Murphy does think of himself as an artist. After all, he does have two albums under his belt and is currently working on a third. He’s provided background vocals for other artists, and sang several songs in the Shrek film franchise. Here’s a link to his new single, a reggae tune called “Red Light,” featuring Snoop Lion.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, I should state things more carefully. I don’t know how he sees himself, but based on the projects he’s done in the past, my feeling is that he’s more an entertainer than an artist. And I say that in large part because, in his work, in general, he seems eager to please his audience and not really challenge us or alter our perceptions or beliefs in any way. His comedy routines can be pretty edgy sometimes – I would say he challenges his audience more through his comedy than his music or films – but he never comes close to bringing about the kinds of deep cultural shifts Michael Jackson did. Michael Jackson challenges us constantly in so many ways – how we think about race and gender, money and power and global inequality, animals and ecosystems and the natural world, children and marriage and family relationships, as well as romance and sexuality and desire. In fact, there are times where he really forces us to question why we desire the things we do.
I see this all playing out in interesting ways in Remember the Time. Iman’s character, the Queen, is bored and fickle and cruel. She wants an entertainer who will amuse her, and when the first two entertainers don’t please her, she casually has them killed, as mentioned before. It’s presented in a comic way, but it’s still chilling.
Then Michael Jackson’s character appears, but he’s way more than just an entertainer. He doesn’t look like much when he first appears in his simple robe and sandals, and the Pharaoh kind of mocks him – just like Eddie Murphy himself mocked Michael Jackson: “And what is it you’re going to do?” But this unimposing figure has uncanny abilities – like Michael Jackson himself – and he both exceeds and defies their expectations.
First he transforms himself into an indeterminate figure who’s wearing both modern black jeans and a transparent Egyptian skirt. It’s the kind of skirt you see Egyptian figures wearing in ancient murals, and I really kind of like it, actually, but it’s not very macho in a traditional sense. But then the Pharaoh realizes that his Queen is seriously turned on by this new kind of man, and his eyes practically bug out at the sight! And soon after we see Michael Jackson’s character surrounded by a ring of dancing harem girls – not bad for a guy in a skirt …
This magician/musician also challenges them both, especially the Queen – the woman who killed his predecessors. After he transforms, he brushes off his arms and juts out his jaw like he’s going into a fight. Then he swipes his mouth with the back of his hand – just like he did in Bad before telling the street thugs that they’re “doing wrong,” and in Ghosts before telling the Mayor and villagers that they’re “doing wrong” also. So this character is far more than an entertainer trying to please his audience. It’s much more complicated than that.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And I agree with what you said before about us seeing this so differently because we really do. I believe that this one is simply mirroring the tale that the song is telling, and the Queen becomes hot and bothered when she recognizes her former lover, who is standing there asking her if she remembers the time they spent together. The King is obviously upset about this, and he decides to have him killed once he sees the connection this strange man has to his wife. As I’m fond of saying, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything always has an underlying, symbolic meaning.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie, but to me there are a lot of unsettling little details that don’t really add up if this is just a love story. Like, why does he begin this video by showing us that the Queen is a murderer? That’s not very romantic! And why does he set it up so she’s married to someone else? And why does he spend so little time with her? He actually spends a lot more time dancing with the harem girls than he does with her. That doesn’t really fit a love story either.
Joie: I don’t think he’s trying to show us that the Queen is a murderer. I just think he’s trying to show us the culture and the time period that this short film is set in! And she’s married to someone else because she’s the Queen. I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting. Would it be more romantic if he had set it at a modern-day church where he’s interrupting a wedding to ask the bride if she remembers how much in love they used to be? Maybe. And then he could have spent some time dancing with the wedding party instead of the harem girls!
Willa: But queens don’t have to be married! Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was a powerful Egyptian queen who had passionate affairs with both Julius Caesar (played by Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (played by Richard Burton) and she wasn’t married to either one of them. And you know Michael Jackson must have seen that movie, as much as he loved old movies and Elizabeth Taylor.
But my point is, if he simply wanted to make Remember the Time a steamy romance he easily could have, but he didn’t. I mean, there’s a love scene in it, but overall it just doesn’t feel like it’s primarily a love story to me. It seems to me that once again he’s evoking that double relationship we see so often in his songs and videos of a man with his lover as well as a performer with his audience. We’ve talked about that double relationship before in posts about the My Baby songs (songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous”) as well as a lot of the Invincible songs (like “Invincible,” “Don’t Walk Away,” “Butterflies,” “Whatever Happens,” and “Speechless”) and in videos like You Rock My World, Who Is It, and Give In to Me. Over and over we see him creating this double narrative that, on one level, seems to be talking about the relationship between a man and his lover, but on another level is talking about the relationship between a performer and his audience.
And to me, this double relationship is perhaps spelled out more explicitly in Remember the Time than in any other video – after all, he really is playing both roles simultaneously. He is both a man trying to reconnect with a former lover and an entertainer trying to please his audience, all at the same time. I don’t think we see that in any other video.
And if we approach this video that way – as both a lost romance and a story about a performer and his audience – then all those things that really bothered me before make perfect sense. For example, I can understand why he would depict the Queen as fickle and cruel, because audiences really are fickle and cruel. They love Charlie Chaplin or Shirley Temple or Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber one day, and then take great delight in tearing them down the next. And I can understand why he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand like he’s about to go into battle, because I imagine that a lot of times dealing with some members of his audience, especially critics, must have felt like a battle.
Joie: Ok, Willa, when you explain it that way, I can see where you’re coming from. And your interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. I can see the double relationship you’re talking about with the Queen representing the fickle audience here. You’re probably absolutely right. That double relationship was one that Michael used over and over again to get his point of view across and to attempt to educate the rest of us about our behavior. It was a “go to” sort of tactic for him, and one that served him well, I think. I wonder if other artists use it so effectively.
Willa: That’s a good question, Joie. I know it’s fairly common for artists – poets especially – to present the relationship between an artist and his muse as a love affair, but I don’t know about the relationship between an artist and his audience. Hmmm … that’s interesting.
But you know, I don’t mean to say this is the only way of approaching this video. I’m really intrigued by this interpretation, but I feel like I’ve been pushing it too hard. There are a lot of other really interesting ways to approach it as well. For example, I’d like to go back to a question you raised earlier when you said, “I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting.”
That’s a really good question – why did he choose to set this video in ancient Egypt? It reminds me of something he said in an interview with Jesse Jackson in March 2005:
Michael Jackson: I really love Africa, and I love the people of Africa. … I spend more of my vacation in Africa than any other country. … They never show the sandy, white sugar beaches, and it’s there. … They never show how beautiful the place is, and it’s really stunningly beautiful! And I want to heighten that awareness with what I’m doing, and that’s been my dream for many, many years. …
Jesse Jackson: You know, we know about the high points of Rome because we see it on film.
Michael Jackson: That’s right.
Jesse Jackson: We know about the high points of Britain and the palace. We see it on film. Or on Paris. We don’t see much of Africa on film. We see Africa as misery, and Africa as problems. We do not see it as being this phenomenally endowed continent of sand and sea and oil and resources. …
Michael Jackson: The world is jealous of Africa for many centuries because the natural resources are phenomenal! It really is. And it is the dawn of civilization. Our history, a lot of our Bible history, is right there in Africa. And King Tut, all these great civilizations, that is right there in Africa. Egypt is in Africa! And they always try to separate the two, but Egypt is Africa.
That’s a long quotation, but I think it helps explain why Egypt was so important to him. We see this fascination with Egyptian art and culture running throughout his adult life, and I wonder if that stems in part from an urge to reclaim Egypt as part of black history and culture.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the fact that the Egyptian royal couple played by Eddie Murphy and Iman are black. We don’t usually see that – for example, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was white. But in Remember the Time, the Egyptian royalty are black. In fact, the entire cast is black. I can’t think of another Michael Jackson video where that’s true. And I wonder if he set it up that way in part to emphasize the idea he expresses in the Jesse Jackson interview that “Egypt is in Africa … Egypt is Africa.”
Joie: That’s a great quote, and I completely agree with what he said in that quote, “they” do always try to separate Egypt from Africa, but it can’t be done. And I think you’re right in suggesting that perhaps that was part of his motive here – to bring an awareness or try to educate us about Egypt being Africa.
Willa: You know, I’d never thought about that before – that Egypt is often separated out from Africa – until I listened to this interview. That’s really interesting, and it adds a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson’s longtime interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptian art. For example, we see it in the Bashir documentary when he talks so enthusiastically about the Egyptian sarcophagus, and we see it in this portrait from the HIStory album, which is modeled after a sculpture of Pharoah Khafre and his protector, the god Horus, who often appears as a falcon:
Interestingly, this sculpture of Khafre and Horus is seen by many scholars as the model for the Sphinx.
Joie: I’ve always thought that was a very interesting picture of him. The likeness is remarkable, I think.
And it is interesting, isn’t it? How the western world attempts to separate the great civilization of Egypt from the brown skinned people who built and ruled it. And that’s just the sort of African (and African American) history that Michael Jackson always seemed to be very drawn to and interested in. The history that he always tried to educate us about.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he continues our education in subtle ways in Remember the Time.