Happy Michael Jackson’s birthday, everybody! What did you get me? I got you this thorough illustrated analysis of the “Black or White” video from the album Dangerous!
The “Black or White” music video is the sort of weird, messy, well-meaning, overreaching, and fun piece of mainstream art that only the lightning rod known as Michael Jackson could’ve attracted. It was directed by John Landis (who had already done “Thriller,” of course) and shot by Mac Ahlberg (TRANCERS, GHOULIES, RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, STRIKING DISTANCE). Like “Thriller” it was a short film (11 minutes in its longest version), and its first broadcast (November 14th, 1991 simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox) was a heavily hyped event. It was a Thursday night, playing right after The Simpsons on Fox (specifically, the soapbox derby episode “Saturdays of Thunder”), and receiving that network’s highest ever ratings at that time.
It had celebrity cameos (including The Simpsons), groundbreaking special effects, meta elements, and (still puzzling to this day) controversy that caused (or was the excuse for) the best part to be removed for subsequent broadcasts. While Michael sang and danced and visually symbolized in earnest about the lack of racial barriers in eligibility to be his “baby” or his “brother,” it became common to joke about not being able to tell if he was black or white due to his vitiligo-lightened skin. Most of the world could accept that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” in theory, but that was not gonna stop them from making judgments about Michael’s racial identity.
Like the feature length MOONWALKER, this mini-movie is a jumbled mix-tape of stylistically clashing segments. For convenience I will break it down into four main sections.
1. AT HOME WITH MACAULAY
The video begins high above the clouds one night. Then it dives down toward a city and flies along the streets of a digital suburb, looks in the ground level window of one house, then the second floor. Inside we find some obnoxious kid (Macaulay Culkin) in his bedroom dancing and rocking out to a tape of guitar jams by Slash. (Among his posters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bartman [Michael Jackson in-joke since he did the song], Michael Jackson.)
The kid’s dad (George Wendt, HOUSE, KING OF THE ANTS) abandons the joy of watching baseball to come upstairs and yell at him about it. Though dad has the cruel, demeaning attitude of a teacher in a Twisted Sister video (“YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME WITH THIS GARBAGE, NOW GO. TO. BED!”), it seems to have little effect on the behavior of his son, who responds by setting up two Kiss-sized amplifiers in the living room, putting on sunglasses and a fingerless glove (oh shit, it’s on), doing the Bruce Lee/Michael Jackson wiping-edge-of-hand-across-lip move, and electric guitaring his dad so fuckin radically awesomely hard that his La-Z-Boy ejects through the roof and into the upper atmosphere where we started.
Since this starts with Wendt watching a baseball game, it seems to be intended to add a meta-element to this initial prime time debut. This segment has the ugly cartoonish look and juvenile faux-rebelliousness of a ’90s straight-to-VHS kid’s comedy or sugary fruit product commercial.
2. BLACK OR WHITE
For the actual song portion we go to some lions in Africa. Traditionally-garbed hunters are creeping up on them, and then dad and his chair land there to watch. For a second he kind of smiles, then he’s like “Wait, what the–” when he notices Michael Jackson (unbuttoned white longsleeve shirt over v-neck undershirt, white right forearm brace, black pants with kneepads, doing air guitar) among the Africans.
We follow Michael on a possibly time traveling dance through several traditional cultures, choreographed by Vincent Paterson (“Hot For Teacher,” MANNEQUIN, various Madonna tours, HOOK, “Windowlicker,” DANCER IN THE DARK). He and the Africans run off their rocky set to grey-background soundstage with Thai dancers in colorful gowns and crowns.
It’s an easy jaunt from one culture to another. Soon a mere edit transports him to a stage in the middle of the Vasquez Rocks, dancing with Native Americans, while others ride around the stage on horses firing guns in the air.
An epic scene. But before you know it he’s in the middle of traffic with an Indian Odissi dancer (I’m not pretending to know what that is, that’s just what I’ve read her described as), reading the newspaper with flaming, polluting smokestacks in the background.
Next he’s in the snow with some Hopak-dancing Russians.
By now it seems like his own version of It’s a Small World. And it literally is, because they turn out to be figures inside a snow globe
(spoiler for CEMETERY MAN) which is being played with by two babies (one black and one white) who are sitting on a globe and/or are gigantic god-beings floating in space astride the earth.
Why did I not remember this part? This is clearly an amazing part, right? I don’t know what it means, exactly. Inside this paper weight are various cultures of the world, and they are all in the hands of… not the white man, but the innocent white baby, who may or may not be sharing with the innocent black baby? I’m not sure.
But things are always changing. Michael is no longer a miniature figure inside a snowglobe, but in fact the reverse: a regular sized living being outside in fire! I don’t mean to make light of it though, because this is the part where he’s singing about all the “business” that he’s tired of as well as “I ain’t scared of no sheets,” and here you can make out a burning cross and Klansmen with torches behind him.
He also dances through stock footage of something fired out of the front of a vehicle, troopers in helmets in front of it, possibly some sort of war zone or protest/police riot?
Suddenly it zooms in on a stoop for an embarrassing interlude where Culkin (RICHIE RICH), wearing a dollar sign on a gold chain, returns and Michael and a bunch of other kids stand with him as he lip synchs the already-completely-wack-when-done-by-an-adult rap verse. Last year a writer for Vice reported that the rapper was actually producer Bill Bottrell (E.L.O., The Jacksons’ Victory), who had recorded it as a temp track he hoped would be replaced by LL Cool J or Heavy D. “I’m not a rapper, and I did not intend to be a white guy who’s rapping on there,” he explained. He self-deprecatingly credited himself as L.T.B, for Leave It to Beaver.
Mercifully, the scene ends and we find Michael by himself on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. This would’ve been a good place for a Fievel cameo, since he was a popular cartoon character and as an immigrant represented a bond between two cultures. But I guess he could’ve been there and we just didn’t see him behind the railing. I hope Michael didn’t step on him.
Anyway, the Statue is revealed to be in an amalgam city of landmarks from around the world, much like the metropolis in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY.
3. THE MORPH
This was, at the time, the most famous part of the video, when a series of happy models smile and lip synch and head bop to the chorus, each morphing into the next. As I have established, one of the faces is Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, who was in MARKED FOR DEATH, MANIAC COP 3 and ONLY THE STRONG.
So it’s him, Tyra Banks (HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION), Cree Summer (WILD THING) and others. We see various genders and races transforming into each other, always with a smile and a shoulder grooving. In retrospect, Michael’s eventual face blurred these lines as well, like he was permanently living as a mid-stage morph. As a gimmicky special effect people loved it, as a cosmetic surgery feat, not so much.
At the time this was such a new and exciting technology that “morph” was a new word. We had seen the T-1000 and now we saw this. The scene was created by Pacific Data Images, an FX company that had worked on TERMINATOR 2 and would go on to make ANTZ and SHREK before merging with Dreamworks Animation.
4. THE PANTHER
Much like Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” video (1987), the camera pulls out to show the supposed filming of the video, with Landis – who was in between OSCAR and INNOCENT BLOOD at this point, and only a couple years past COMING TO AMERICA – on set congratulating the last morph model for her performance. A panther walks through the set, apparently unnoticed by the many professional crew people. It walks down some stairs, exits into a dark alley, and morphs into Michael Jackson.
Notice that his “Billy Jean” hat is hanging on the gate waiting for him. Did he show up to the set as a human, hang up his hat, go in as a panther, knowing he’d be back to get his hat? I’d like to know the whole story.
Also, is it possible that the gold-chain-wearing panther on the cover of LL’s Walking With a Panther (1989) is actually Michael? Have we ever seen LL’s panther and the Michael Jackson panther in the same place at the same time? And if it was Michael did LL know it was him or not know it was him? I have so many questions. Is there a novelization?
The black panther, of course, has a connotation of black militance. But maybe Michael just likes cats. There are the lions in the beginning of the video, and an alley cat near the end, and he turned into that cat monster in “Thriller,” and there’s a cat and lion cub in “Remember the Time.” And check out this Pepsi pin I own (right) that I guess was sold or given out on that tour. I think the chain and sort of Egyptian designs there maybe represent “Remember the Time,” but Michael’s outfit is definitely “Black or White.”
Anyway, he looks like maybe he’s just gonna walk away in peace, go home and have an after video snack or something. But then a light comes on just as he’s under it, shining on him like a spotlight. He freezes, like he’s been caught, and that’s when he starts doing dance moves, hat tilts and poses. He struts into the street, a strong wind blowing garbage, leaves and steam. This might as well be the same block from “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Jackson’s beautiful ode to street harassment, except that there’s no one around.
He dances without music, we just hear the amplified sounds of his feet scraping pavement, his clothes shifting, his limbs whooshing through the air. He breathes and grunts, sometimes he lets out his Lost Boy style “HOOO!!” shouts, but also we hear frequent feline roars. He splashes through a puddle, and onto a curb, spins near an old-timey streetlamp. It’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, but there are bars on all the windows.
And then he kicks and breaks an empty beer bottle that’s on the curb. He throws his hat away, goes over to a parked car and starts breaking the windows with his bare hands. (Is that what that wrist brace is for?) Jumps up on the trunk, which some fool left a crowbar on, and bashes out the front and back windshields.
Then he tosses the crowbar and dances on the roof of the car, transforming it into a stage, with steam blowing dramatically behind him as he spins, punches, slides, and rubs his hand in front of his crotch. He pulls the steering wheel right out and throws it through the door window of a condemned building. As he continues to dance on the hood he realizes his fly came undone during all that and he turns zipping it back up into a move.
Now, of course, all kids are taught this move so they don’t get made fun of in school when somebody tells them to “XYZ.” But at the time, apparently, people complained to Fox. The same people who would many years later complain when they saw part of Michael’s sister Janet’s booby in the Super Bowl Half Time Show. Those prudes have all since died and been replaced by grandchildren who don’t write letters to networks about indecency, but do write tweets about things that offend their sensibilities in different ways. I think that’s both bad and good. If “The Way You Make Me Feel” came out now it would’ve been immediately sentenced to the death penalty by means of think piece. So they’re missing out on some fun, but they’re also making an effort to make a better, fairer world, where Michael would leave that lady the fuck alone if she told him to.
The New York Times argued at the time that the panther scene was stupid. “Is the destruction an assertion of masculinity? Mr. Jackson looks as fragile, even feminine, as ever. Is it an outpouring of pain and frustration? A desperate cry for attention from one of the world’s most famous people? Do Mr. Landis and Mr. Jackson simply consider breaking glass attention-getting and photogenic? Or is it simply a noisy self-indulgence? No matter; the video clip cuts to the Simpsons, and Bart is told by his father to shut off the television. If Bart likes it, it’s supposed to be cool.”
I think this shows one way that Michael was ahead of his time. 25 years later many members of our society, especially those young twitterers I mentioned, are making a concerted effort not to discriminate against people who challenge gender norms. I think people now might be a little more open to the idea that Michael could act macho while looking feminine, if that’s what he wants to do. I often wonder if Michael had lived longer if it would’ve ever become politically incorrect to make fun of his plastic surgery. I don’t understand why he did what he did, but I don’t understand alot of things. We’re okay with much more extreme surgeries in the name of finding one’s true self. We support Caitlin Jenner or the Wachowski’s rights to surgically become the people they want to be, so shouldn’t we have supported Michael’s? When I bring this up nobody thinks so. So far.
I think that article is also playing dumb about what Michael is getting at. They do note that the next part, when Michael throws a garbage can through a store window, is an allusion to DO THE RIGHT THING.
And surely they understand that Mookie threw his garbage can through his window because of the death of a friend, a needless loss of life from a confrontation that did not need to be escalated, at the hands of white police, called there because of some bullshit, a dumb argument between people in the neighborhood. It’s anger and frustration and helplessness over this racial conflict and its systematic oppression of black people that never seems to change. After the sunny we’re-all-the-same sequence segued into the KKK footage clearly this is Michael’s topic as well. We saw how he sees the world, how he wants us to see the world, but then he walks away from the fantasy factory and he’s not as optimistic. He’s angry. A later revision of the video (called “The Complete Version” on the Michael Jackson Video Greatest Hits History DVD, or “Panther Version” on the packaging, as if it’s the original one) actually digitally added racist graffiti (swastika, “Hitler Lives,” etc.) to all the windows he breaks, so that it would be more clear what he was angry about.
I like the ambiguous version better, though, because
1) Nazis and the Klan are fucking assholes, but they’re not usually the ones responsible for the things that matter most, the more common systemic oppression like racial profiling, police brutality, voter suppression and economic inequality.
2) I just can’t buy a KKK supporter with this strong a sense of graphic design or paint skills:
Like DO THE RIGHT THING, Straight Outta Compton, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, this was an angry artistic shout that happened shortly before everything exploded. Like these other voices with more street cred, the world’s biggest pop icon was expressing (in a less specific and more cartoonish way, of course) how fed up he was with the state of race relations.
This year, when Beyonce alluded to similar emotions in her excellent longform video Lemonade, the usual choir of clueless, thin-skinned, up-in-arms, absolutely-not-ever-going-to-admit-that-the-fucking-sky-is-blue embarrassments to white people were outraged. She actually smashed alot more cars:
and then took it to the next level
(man was I delighted when that happened) but that part seemed to be about her husband cheating on her. The part that offended people was raising her fist and showing respect to the mothers of children killed by police. People were angry! What a monster!
But other people watched Lemonade and enjoyed it and those other chumps went home and shined their German WWII memorabilia for historical purposes only and waited around for another outrageous police shooting to justify on Facebook. In Michael’s case it was different, the networks just lopped the scene off of the end of the video for most airings, conveniently making it a more normal length and structure for a music video. Obviously the part to cut off would be the shitty opening and closing that seemed only designed for that first airing. But they kept the wacky parts and got rid of the anger. No catharsis permitted.
Five months later, when the not guilty verdict for the cops who beat up Rodney King ignited riots in Los Angeles and other cities, some people would continue to fixate on the property damage aspect. Why is he so angry? He seems like such a nice boy, why did he throw the garbage can? I’m not sure how many songs, how many tragedies, how many decades of slow progress we will need before those of us not suffering will be able to put themselves in the shoes of those who are. Be able to morph into another person and realize oh shit, we’re the same. I might be tempted to throw a garbage can too if that happened to me and my friends all the time.
Michael’s last act of destruction in the video is maybe on accident. He slams down onto his knees (shoulda kept those knee pads on, huh?), screams and tears his shirt off like Hulk Hogan, splashes water onto a neon sign (Royal Arms Hotel – probly not the one in Warwickshire) that showers sparks on him until it actually collapses. He looks around, seems a little worried about it, so he gets down on all fours, morphs back into the panther and leaves.
(One final segment reveals the video to be playing on the animated TV of the Simpsons, another tacky gimmick that seems designed mainly for that first simulcast.)
“Black or White” does not rank that high in my list of favorite Michael Jackson videos or songs, and yet there is nothing else like it, and it fascinates me. It captures the frustrations and aspirations of the time, the good intentions and weird indulgences of the artist, the delightful highs and now-dated lows of an expensive entertainment spectacle. If this sort of thing ever gets to happen again, it won’t be on four networks with everybody in the world watching at the same time. It was one of those rare moments in pop culture history when an artist was so monolithic that he could go as big and as crazy as he wanted and still achieve the broad mainstream success he was looking for. The lack of restraint is both a problem and exhilarating. I don’t know about you guys, but I will forgive that Macaulay Culkin in sunglasses shit if it means seeing Michael move like that after going panther on a racist car.
NOTE: When I was doing some research I found an article on Buzzfeed called “17 Ways Michael Jackson’s ‘Black Or White’ Video Accurately Showed Us The Future Of Race In America” and I thought “Oh shit, did Buzzfeed already make the same points I made?” No, it turns out to just be a bunch of sarcastic jokes making fun of the video. So, I suppose some would see it as a bad thing that I would write a sincere essay about a topic that Buzzfeed considered to be a funny joke, but I will take it as a point of pride.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.