From time to time, so much MJ news hits all at once that it’s impossible to keep up and do a timely piece on all of them as they occur. These days, between work overload, illness (I am currently fighting off my second flu bout within two months) and commitment to other projects, it is often taking me even longer to keep up with timely Michael Jackson news, so every once in awhile these “catch up” posts become a necessity.
So as I was saying, the last few weeks have certainly seen Michael’s name in the news a lot, in both good and bad ways. Since it’s always good to end things on a positive note, I’ll start by addressing the bad (which, nevertheless, I believe, has produced a positive result if, for no other reason, the amount of backlash and public support the controversy has actually generated on Michael’s behalf):
The “Whitewashing” of Michael Jackson:
It was most fans’ worst nightmare when the news was confirmed that the rumored UK TV movie “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” a ludicrous sounding project based on a totally unfounded urban myth of a post 9/11 road trip taken by Michael, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, was, in fact, a legit project (not a hoax, as many had first believed). The premise was bad enough, but to add insult to injury was the casting of Joseph Fiennes, a white British actor, to portray an American black icon. In the wake of this shocking news, many fans took to petitions and other means to try to halt the casting of Fiennes, but those efforts were in vain considering that we were pulled a fast one-as it turned out, production of the movie had long since wrapped, and other than its being broadcast, was already a done deal. It was too late to stop Joseph Fiennes from playing Michael Jackson-but not too late to make a noise about it, and noise they got! The condemnation of this casting decision was immediate, and swift, especially coinciding (as it conveniently did) with the already heated controversy over the Oscar’s “whitewashing” this year. This was just the push needed to galvanize what ordinarily might have been just another indignity and injustice to Michael Jackson to be ignored or even condoned by the media to, instead, a glaring focal point on which to hang everything that was wrong with the African-American treatment and representation by Hollywood.
What may be the most important thing to come out of this whole debacle is not so much that a silly and most likely forgettable movie will be made with a white actor playing Michael Jackson, but that we finally saw the uniting of an outraged media in both creating and sustaining this backlash. For once, it seemed, Michael’s fans and the media were fighting on the same team, to protest a casting decision that went far beyond bad taste to become symbolic of something much more sinister, a reminder that our western “minstrel show” mentality isn’t as far behind us as we would like to believe.
It is also hard to buy the feeble protestings of Fiennes who insists he was as “shocked” as everyone else by the casting decision. First of all, I would assume he must have read for the part (it’s very rare that actors are simply called up to do a part; even then, they have the option of refusing). If he read for the part, we can reasonably assume he must have considered himself a contender for the role. He could have also refused to do it, and frankly, although I have liked Joseph Fiennes’s work in other projects, I now have to seriously question his integrity as an actor, as I really can’t imagine any white actor accepting this role with the naive belief that this is simply okay. These suspicions have been confirmed by a recent People article in which Fiennes continues to defend his decision to take the role.
However, this isn’t the first time that a non African-American actor has portrayed Michael. Edward Moss, a noted MJ impersonator, also portrayed Michael in the Scary Movie franchise as well as, perhaps most notably, in the Court TV reenactments of the 2005 trial. Granted, what both Scary Movie and Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon have in common is that they are both comedies (as opposed to serious dramas or biographical pics) but that doesn’t make it any less insulting. I have seen Edward Moss perform as Michael Jackson and he is good at what he does, but that should have been the extent of it.
All of this hoopla reminds me of how, back in 2009 when Michael died, a rumor began circulating that Johnny Depp was going to play Michael in a bio pic. It was a rumor that Depp quickly denied, but the rumor remained persistent in certain circles. I have to say, if there was a mainstream white actor who could successfully capture the essence of Michael’s quirky charm and sex appeal in his mature years, Depp would be the only one who could possibly pull it off, but if such a project was ever even discussed, Depp probably made a wise decision not to bite, as the political backlash would have certainly amounted to career suicide.
Still, the whole issue raises some interesting questions. For example, Michael himself wanted very desperately to portray Edgar Allan Poe in a bio pic of the writer’s life. Granted, it is very rare that a black actor would seriously consider himself to play the role of a white man, but Michael apparently didn’t feel it to be a limitation (let’s not forget, he also didn’t mind putting on “whiteface” to portray the role of The Mayor in Ghosts). Yet, if there exists in Hollywood a double standard on these issues, it is a double standard in place for good reason. After all, whites were never oppressed in the film industry in the way that other minorities have been, and continue to be. Sometimes a little turnaround is fair play.
Of course, any casting decision involving a film about Michael Jackson is bound to be controversial. Additionally, it is a role with its own inherent challenges, since Michael did–unarguably-go through so many physical changes in his lifetime. The most challenging aspect for any production is always going to come down to how to best (and most realistically) depict mature era Michael, when the skin disease vitiligo had depleted all pigment (the era for which many ill informed people still refer to as the era of “white” Michael). Trying to achieve this effect on a black actor would not be an easy feat to pull off, and we saw how disastrous and unnatural it looked when that attempt was made with Flex Alexander in 2004 (who managed to prove that even a black actor cast as Michael Jackson could still be a horrible cast of miscasting, and who portrayed most of Michael’s mature era as a most unflattering shade of gray). I have seen many black MJ tribute artists try to recreate the look of Michael’s post vitiligo era with pancake makeup, but the effect never looks natural. (Instead, most come off looking rather ghostly and strange).
The only possible, realistic solution would be to cast an extremely light skinned African-American actor, someone whose natural skin tone is approximately the shade of Michael’s during the Bad era, and work from there by degrees through make-up. These are simple cosmetic issues that, while challenging, are not impossible. After all, we live in an era where Brad Pitt can be digitally aged forty years forward and then twenty years backward, all within the space of a two hour film. Almost anything can be accomplished with a little Hollywood magic-if the budget is right.
But beyond practical issues of cosmetics, the fact remains that Michael Jackson was a black man who always identified as a black man, and that didn’t change just because he lost some melanin in his skin cells. To deny him even his own identity is something that goes much deeper than a bad casting decision. It is a shameful expose’ of just how little his achievements as a black icon matter to these filmmakers. Case in point: As I am writing this, the movie The Race is about to open, telling the powerful and inspiring story of Jesse Owen’s triumph over the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Would Jesse Owen’s story be the same with a white actor portraying him? At the very least, it would certainly undermine the film’s message.
Alas, at this point I think it is futile to protest as it looks as though Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon is going forward regardless of what we-or anyone else, apparently-has to say about it. But we can still make our disapproval loud and clear, by refusing to give them the satisfaction of ratings. If there is any light to come out of this, it is the fact that, for once, we have seen a genuine, united front in protesting this latest outrage to Michael’s memory. And that, if anything, may be one positive we can take away from what I hope will otherwise be a completely forgettable debacle.
Maybe one day Michael will get the award winning biopic that his rich musical legacy and panoramic life deserve. Maybe…
Spike Lee’s Off The Wall:
On a much more positive note, the last few weeks have definitely been a renaissance of celebration for Michael’s artistic legacy. February 5th marked the debut of two television events centered on two very different yet equally crowning achievements of Michael’s career-his groundbreaking Off the Wall album and his 1993 Superbowl performance, which set the groundwork for all of the spectacular, star-studded Superbowl extravaganzas to come. Interestingly enough, both specials were scheduled in direct competition of each other, so for lucky fans who could access both, it was an exciting evening of MJ vs. MJ (for even if, granted, the CBS broadcast of “Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows” wasn’t about Michael’s performance exclusively, his was still a very prominently featured segment).
Unfortunately, my mention of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall will have to be a brief one for now. We don’t have Showtime at our house, and while I am aware that there are a few sites providing free streaming, I don’t especially trust those as I’ve had the misfortune of picking up computer viruses from many of those sites in the past. Thus, I am setting my sights on February 26 when the doc is available in stores for purchase, and I’m sure I will be writing more on it once I’ve seen it for myself.
However, judging by the overwhelming response on social media, it seems no one has had anything but praise for this documentary. What’s more, the overwhelming praise from fans has been equally matched by overwhelming critical praise, and that is always a good thing. “Off the Wall” era is an intriguing one for many reasons, but namely, as the era in which we saw the official transformation of Michael Jackson from child star and member of The Jackson 5/Jacksons to adult superstardom. Judging from every review I have read, the film beautifully captures this important epoch of Michael’s career.
Spike Lee has said that both the Bad 25 and Off the Wall films are part of a planned trilogy that will also include Thriller. I think it was an interesting approach to actually BEGIN the series with the two albums that were somewhat overshadowed by this behometh that fell in between them. However, all three albums collectively represent the “Holy Trinity” of Michael’s solo career in the 1980’s. The only downside for me is that choosing to focus on those three albums exclusively only seems to confirm a cliched’ belief held by many that these three albums represent not only the pinnacle of Michael’s career and commercial success, but also of his artistry as well (it also somewhat reinforces the myth that Michael’s artistry and commercial success spiraled downhill without Quincy Jones at the helm). This was sadly reinforced for me when I saw a media headline promoting the Off the Wall documentary as “Michael Jackson Before He Was Weird.” Don’t get me wrong, I love these albums and am all for their being celebrated and appreciated as the brilliant achievements they are. They are well deserving of all the critical acclaim. But considering that Spike Lee was the director of Michael’s monumental “They Don’t Care About Us” short film, and considering that song’s increasing political reawakening in this era of Black Lives Matter, I would really hope that at some point he would want to do something to put the spotlight on Michael’s later works, which despite a slowly turning critical tide still remain vastly underrated works in his canon. Michael’s youthful achievements in music have already been lauded with acclaim and recognition, while critical appreciation of Dangerous, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor and Invincible lag far behind. They all remain vastly uncharted territory in the overall scope of Michael’s career achievements. As you can probably tell, I’m not really a happy camper with the idea of the “trilogy.” I feel if they’re going to do this thing, do it right and go all the way by including all of the albums of Michael’s solo career.
Having gotten that bit off my chest, I am still very happy that we have this film and it has indeed been gratifying to read all of the glowing reviews. I will look forward to being able to add my own voice to that chorus in another week or so.
Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows:
Since I didn’t get to partake in the debut of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall, I will move on to its competitor-the special I did get to see-which was CBS’s tribute to “The Greatest Halftime Superbowl Shows.” But I was in for a very pleasant surprise, as what I had at first thought would be just a poor substitute for missing Off the Wall ended up being much more than I was expecting. You see, I had assumed that this program would probably be, at best, a typical “countdown” format with fleeting glimpses of all the halftime performances from the past twenty-three years. in which I might catch, at best, a few token seconds of Michael’s seminal 1993 performance. But the show turned out to be much more. Instead of trying to cram in two decades’ worth of memorable performances, the producers wisely opted for a different approach, carefully selecting a chosen few performances-the best of the best-to highlight in fully fleshed out segments of 10-15 minutes each. Michael’s performance was featured about thirty minutes into the two hour special. They credited him fully as the performer who “changed the game” when it came to Superbowl halftime shows. He was fully credited as the one who conceptualized what was essentially a new script for what a Superbowl halftime show could be. The editing job was perfect, allowing viewers to get a sense of the full spectrum of his performance, from the drama of his onstage entry to that grand, climactic spectacle of “Heal the World” at the end. I loved that the narration proclaimed him as “The Game Changer” at the exact moment when the footage showed that beautiful scene of him standing still at center stage, a baton in hand, the setting sunlight striking his face, right at the moment before he proceeded to lead the children’s choir into singing “Heal the World.” They couldn’t have timed it more perfectly, or accurately.
And although all of the performances highlighted were entertaining and moving in their own way (besides Michael, I would have to tie the bid for second place between Prince’s glorious rain soaked rendition of “Purple Rain” and U2’s emotional tribute to 9/11 victims) it served to remind us of what was so special and unique about Michael’s performance. Not only was he the first real superstar act to perform at half time, but he also blazed that trail with practically every disadvantage against him. In those days, the Superbowl was played during the daytime. Up to that point, the halftime shows had been mostly non spectacular performances featuring Disney characters and marching bands-the kind of bland fare that is usually suited for being performed at midday. This was a tradition that was still in effect when Michael Jackson first took the Superbowl halftime stage in 1993. Later performers would have the advantage of being able to go on after dark, on a much larger and far grander stage, replete with all of the lighting effects and razzamatazz spectacle that comes with a multi million dollar budget to spend on all the extravagant bells and whistles that any performer desires. Michael was forced to perform in less than spectacular daylight, on a stage that looked little bigger than those used typically at a low budget outdoor festival, with noticeably scaled back lighting and pyro effects than what audiences usually saw at his concerts. Thus, compared to many of the performances that came later, Michael’s seemed relatively stripped down and lacking in what we might call-for lack of a better phrase-“bling power.” This was never more apparent to me than while watching this show and seeing the actual evolution of the halftime shows from the relatively modest setup that Michael was provided to the huge budget extravaganzas of the last few years.
However, this fact really only adds to his achievement. That Michael Jackson managed to create a seminal, “game changing” performance that even today still ranks among the Superbowl’s Greatest performances (in fact, the #1 rated Superbowl performance according to many polls) despite these drawbacks is a testament to the power of his artistry. It is also a testament to the timelessness of his artistry.
And I couldn’t help but find it amusing when they were commenting on the Janet Jackson debacle of 2004, which resulted in a desire to return to “safe” territory the following year with Sir Paul McCartney. They actually lumped Michael in with the “safe” performers, stating that “You have the safe performers like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, and then you have those who are a risk.” I assume they meant “safe” in the sense of being guaranteed to draw huge numbers (as opposed to the risk of then relatively unknown acts like Bruno Mars) but the irony was that Michael was as “dangerous” as they came; it’s just that he was much more slick about it than most. I doubt, for example, that many actually realized just how subtley militant his Superbowl performance actually was.
Maybe he was “safe” in the sense that he never had a wardrobe malfunction on live TV-but, hey, you never knew when you might get a totally spontaneous crotch grab! (Besides, I have always thought that the Superbowl gave Janet a raw deal. I believe that the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” was just that-an accident. And it ticks me off to no end that Justin Timberlake, who was the one to actually pull her strap, has somehow escaped the taint of that incident). However, Michael’s message has not been lost on his successors, and Beyonce paid a very visible tribute to his Superbowl performance in her own performance which capped off the weekend.
Keely Meagen, who does a wonderful blog called Dare To Rise Up We Can Change The World, asked me to share this piece she has written about the occasion, which also discusses how Michael’s triumphant Superbowl performance may have, in fact, played its own role in the downward spiral of hell he was about to be plunged into:
Have you heard? Beyoncé’s globally-televised, in-your-face reclaiming of Black women’s power is rattling the cages of privilege.
I’ve been haunted all week by Beyoncé’s searing video “Formation” and Super Bowl performance. And I’ve been dismayed by ridiculous reactions from the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed Beyoncé “attacked” the police. I guess he means that like the unarmed kids who’ve been killed for “attacking” cops with imaginary guns. It’s quite a stretch, you know. But lets shine the light back on Beyoncé for a moment.
The superstar’s fierce performance is a huge shift after years of public but more quiet support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Professor Jannell Hobson says,
“That her “Formation” choreography made an appearance during the halftime show at the Super Bowl—replete with 30 black women backup dancers clad in Black-Panther style leather and berets while Beyoncé herself channeled the King of Pop, sporting a jacket similar to the one he wore during his Superbowl performance—demonstrates that the pop star is seriously grappling with the power and clout she now has to raise up the power and magic of black life.”
It’s thrilling to see Beyoncé following in Michael Jackson’s’s footsteps, wielding that power and clout to transform the world. Black women’s leadership is essential to the success of any attempt to pry open the door to justice and equality in the U.S., so I am celebrating her action. I imagine Michael’s spirit must also be celebrating Beyoncé and delighting in the nods to him and other Black activists.
But I also imagine that Michael’s spirit is concerned for Beyoncé’s safety, given the violent history of backlash against Black luminaries, including the surge of attacks against Michael after his profoundly political Super Bowl performancein 1993. On that stage, his messages in “Black or White”, “We Are the World” and “Heal the World” moved deep into the heart of conservative America and were broadcast live in 120 countries.
Michael Jackson’s Post-Super-Bowl Hell
Just seven months after that stunning performance, Michael was charged with molesting a child, kicking off a firestorm of increasingly unanimous media condemnation, ridicule and attempts to destroy his life and legacy. In 2014, journalist and former White House media official D. B. Anderson wrote:
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.
No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.
Here are a few more dots: the press that vilified Jackson is owned by the one percent (five corporations control 95 percent of the U.S. press). And that one percent has a financial interest in perpetuating Katrina-like disasters (cheap real estate!), incarcerating of youth of color (private, for-profit prisons!), and maintaining structural racism (justified unequal treatment means lower wages for everyone!). The invisibility of structural racism (for white people) also keeps Blacks and whites fighting each other, instead of turning against that tippy top segment of American wealth and power.
These connecting dots lead me to believe that the one percent not only felt threatened by Michael’s successful efforts to change the world, they also worked behind the scenes to take him down, and will attempt to do the same to others who threaten their interests.
High profile artists appear to believe this as well. D. B. Anderson traced the celebrity silence around Ferguson to the backlash Michael Jackson endured for his political stance.
Buffering Beyonce and #Formation
Beyoncé has courageously blown the lid off of that silence. Hallelujah! And, unfortunately, she could now be in the same vulnerable position Michael was in after his performance. Foaming at the mouth is already under way on Fox news and social media, and God knows where else. (Check out Saturday Night Live’s “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”)
Those of us who have looked closely at Michael’s life can understand better than most the potential danger in this powerful moment.
But when I look at the video, I realize Beyoncé learned a lot from Michael’s experience. The visual references to Voodoo spiritual practices and powerful women from that tradition create a vibrant “Don’t Fuck With Me” message. (Voodoo comes out of West African spiritual practices and tends to scare the shit out of white people). She seems fully capable of protecting herself, doubly so with the powerful Black women joining her in formation.
Here’s more good news: Michael’s fans have already proven their ability to squash media tsunamis. After his death, the press had to shut up and eat crow when faced with the groundswell of L.O.V.E. and demands that he be honored and respected. So Beyoncé can protect herself, and we can help protect her space for creating and expressing herself, thanking her the way The King of Pop would want us to.
We all have different access to power, money, time and media, I am particularly calling on white fans like me to use what we have to make a difference. As a progressive, low-income writer, here are things that I think of for myself: writing blogs, social media comments, and letters to the editor; calling advertisers on offensive media; talking with people around me; donating to and attending #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations (because it is not just Beyoncé’s life and freedom of speech that matters).
Now and in the critical months to come, let’s create a buffer formation, and show that we will not tolerate the disrespect of another courageous Black superstar. I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas below.
Her commentary is especially interesting (perhaps even disturbing) considering CBS’s ironic attempt now, two decades later, to label him as one of the Superbowl’s “safe” performers. One has to wonder why the Superbowl apparently never invited him for an encore performance, as they have with almost all of the other famous luminaries of the tradition, including Beyonce herself. My guess is that it would be precisely because Michael Jackson, post 1993, had ceased to be that “safe” performer they desired.
However, although I could easily turn this into a bitter rant, I really do want to keep it positive, and I think what we need to take away from any reflection of the past few weeks is that we have seen a remarkable tide of positive energy surrounding Michael’s name and legacy. Even the Joseph Fiennes casting fiasco has, as I said, produced a positive result in at least creating a united front of justifiable outrage against it. As history has taught us, positive change can only arise when there is something negative to react against-and if history is any indication, good can occasionally trump the bad.
And since this will likely be my last post of February, it seems a fitting closure for Black History Month 2016 to reflect on the various ways in which Michael’s achievements have been celebrated this month. Of course, Michael Jackson’s achievements are much too vast to ever be contained to one obligatory month; a month that gives all politically correct, white privileged persons a chance to pat themselves smugly on the back. His life continues to be an inspiration to all black children born in America, every day of the week; every month of every passing year.
No amount of “whitewashing” will ever change that.