Today is Michael Jackson’s birthday. On this day in 2009 I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” video, and in 2016 I wrote about John Landis’s “Black or White.” I like the idea of making it a tradition, so this year I’m taking a look at “Remember the Time,” directed by John Singleton (SHAFT ) and produced by Reid Shane (production manager, BIG BAD MAMA II) of Propaganda Films.
“Remember the Time” was filmed in January of 1992 and simultaneously debuted at 8:25 pm February 2nd on MTV, BET and Fox, another major television event for MJ. It was the second single from the album Dangerous, so it was the followup to “Black or White.” I suspect it’s intentional that the 9-minute short film and/or video links to the last one through the use of cats. Remember, when last we saw Michael he had morphed into a panther and exited the soundstage. This video begins and ends with a cat, though not one that appears to represent Michael. Just a feline associate, I presume.
The video whisks us back to a Pharaoh’s palace in ancient Egypt, where there are a bunch of house cats and a lion cub lounging in the royal chambers of Queen Nefertiti (the Somali model Iman, a few months after the release of HOUSE PARTY 2 and a few months before she married David Bowie) and Pharaoh Ramses (Eddie Murphy, 48 HOURS). They also have a falcon and a woman that cools them with a giant feather fan and another woman that pours water in their goblets and one that plays harp and etc. These people sign alot of paychecks (I hope).
But the Queen is bored with all this shit, and she tells the Pharaoh to find her some entertainment. He claps and a guy plays bongos and the head guard comes in and bangs a gong and it pans up from his bare feet to reveal that he’s NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson. (Johnson had made his HIV+ status public just a few months before, and Michael wanted to put him in the video as a show of support.) They put on a little show where Nefertiti doesn’t approve of the first two contestants (stick juggler “The Stick Man” and flame swallower “Pyro”) and instead of having them gonged she has them executed.
The third performer comes in unannounced, wearing a black robe with the hood covering his face, much like Jedi Master Luke Skywalker appearing before Jabba the Hutt in the opening of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
He reaches into his pouch, tosses two handfuls of black sand on the floor, steps into it… and then it turns into (I think) gold dust and he disappears, leaving only his robe (like Obi Wan Kenobi)?
But then the dust magically blows around and turns the robe into gold and then it reforms as a golden Michael Jackson
who I’m sorry to say immediately becomes a regular Michael Jackson but wearing a gold shirt. Then the song starts playing and he starts dancing and singing.
This is a video about sexual tension and jealousy. Nefertiti instantly melts for Michael, which does not escape the notice of Ramses. Iman does a good job of not at all hiding that she wants Michael bad. Her chest is heaving. She leans forward. She looks like she’s fantasizing – or remembering.
I think we can assume that Michael is not a newcomer, but an old flame of Nefertiti’s, because these lyrics about “Do you remember when we fell in love” seem to be hitting close to home. When Michael has the audacity to walk up the stairs and kiss her hand, Ramses jumps up and signals his guards to get him.
It becomes kind of a chase, but mostly the guards are running around not knowing where Michael is. He dances around with locals while Tiny Lister (THE FIFTH ELEMENT) and another guard ransack a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK style market set and run around in different hallways. One of the guards is played by Wylie Draper, who portrayed the adult Michael in the TV mini-series The Jacksons: An American Dream, which aired later that year. (Sadly, he died of leukemia in 1993, only 24 years old.)
Suddenly Michael appears in Nefertiti’s bedroom – in her mind, I think – when she’s laying on the bed with the lion cub. As she remembers the time, she does the most suggestive thing ever in a Michael Jackson video, including when he humps the ground in “The Way You Make Me Feel” and when he unzips his pants in “Black Or White (Panther Version).”
Perhaps to cool down she goes out on a balcony overlooking the pyramids. Nice view. He comes up behind her, surprising her. Again, she’s clearly about to faint in her pants.
This will be Michael’s first onscreen kiss. He had that date to see that thrilling movie, and then that one girl knocked him off of his feet and made him feel the way he felt, but he never managed to get to first base. This one starts out awkward because he asks if she remembers the time that they first met (girl) and then… they hug.
Like, maybe he’s just been talking about that they were friends this whole time?
But then she kisses him and dips down and it seems like maybe they are gonna, you know, find ways to reminisce off camera.
So then it’s like Oh shit, are Ramses and the guards gonna walk in on this, because in my opinion he’s not gonna like that and also it could be argued that that’s a pretty reasonable reaction for a guy whose wife was just sitting with him a minute ago but then a magic sand dude came in and sang to her about how they used to be in love so they went onto the balcony and started fuckin.
But okay – phew – Michael is not with the Queen anymore, he’s with the palace staff, who he’s apparently deputized into his Egyptian dance squad for a big choreographed number in the style of “Thriller” and all his classics.
Apparently members of The Pharcyde are among the dancers, less than a year before their first album came out. Choreographer Fatima Robinson was a 19 year old extra from BOYZ N THE HOOD getting a huge break from Singleton. Her later notable work includes “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” by Busta Rhymes, whatever dancing is in Michael Mann’s ALI, COLLATERAL, MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES, THE WIZ LIVE! and Kendrick Lamar’s great performance at the 2016 Grammies. She also plays “Lori” in ROMEO MUST DIE.
By the way, Michael is singing about the past, but I think he accidentally lets it slip that he’s from the future.
Jesus, Michael. That’s as bad as dumbass Marty McFly trying to order a Pepsi Free and talking about reruns and oldies and shit even though he’s aware that he has traveled back in time to the ’50s. You don’t sing about phones in ancient Egypt. That is the rule.
As the song fades out he does one of his trademark spins, and when he stops he’s shocked to see that he’s all by himself, no more servants. I don’t know if their shift was over or what. The camera slowly pans through the empty chamber until an angry Ramses storms in. Michael smiles mischievously and runs away, but has to slide around on the floor trying to evade the spear-wielding guards, and then he spins and turns into sand and then gold dust that blows away as the cat from the beginning tries to chase it. The cat immediately decides “Fuck it,” licks his paw and then struts off in a different direction.
The digital animation of sand was very sophisticated for 1992 – a child of the T-1000 – though it looks chintzy now. Michael seemed to remain enamored of the idea of transforming himself into granular substances – in the short film Ghosts (1996) he smashes his face into the ground and it turns to dust. I wonder if he tried to get cast in THE MUMMY?
Strangely enough, this was one of Murphy’s first dramatic roles – he doesn’t use his humor at all. He does get a big laugh in the MTV making-of featurette, though, after getting scared by the bird on set.
This was his role between ANOTHER 48 HOURS and BOOMERANG. The next year, Michael returned the favor for Eddie, appearing on his song and video “Whatzupwitu,” from the album Love’s Alright. (Not a great song or video, but it’s interesting that it exists.)
“Remember the Time,” the song, was co-written and produced by Teddy Riley, who in his teens and early twenties had produced hip hop classics like Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor” and Big Daddy Kane’s “I Get the Job Done,” but by ’92 was better known as a member of the R&B group Guy. Because Riley gave “Remember the Time,” “Jam” and “In the Closet” his signature early ’90s R&B-dance sound, Dangerous is considered the highest selling new jack swing album of all time (better luck next time, Boyz II Men).
Singleton had just celebrated his 24th birthday, but he was riding high on the success of his first movie, BOYZ N THE HOOD, which had nabbed him Oscar nominations for best director and best original screenplay. According to an extra cast to play a snake charmer, most of the background players were actors trying to meet Singleton because “for black actors in particular a relationship with him might lead to great things.” He had not yet done his second movie, POETIC JUSTICE, starring Michael’s sister Janet and Tupac Shakur, and it would be more than a decade before his best sellout gig, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS. On the daytime talk show The Real, Singleton claimed to have gotten the job as the result of a friend prank calling him as Michael Jackson. Believing the call was real, he had his manager get a hold of Michael’s, which led to an actual offer, according to the story.
The director told Rolling Stone after Michael’s death that he had “challenged” MJ by asking “Can we put black people in the video?” As addressed in “Black or White,” Michael had been widely criticized and made fun of for lightening his skin, so it’s interesting that the video not only remembers a time when they were in love, but when black people ruled Egypt. With Murphy on the throne you can’t help but think of John Landis’s COMING TO AMERICA, since it starred him and was one of the very few movies glamorizing African royalty.
I think “Remember the Time” is a fun video, but not a great one by MJ standards. On the plus side, its all-black celebrity cast makes kind of a statement, its Egyptian setting stands out from other videos, it gives Michael fun new super powers, and it sticks to one theme, unlike the jumping-all-over-the-place “Black or White.” On the other hand, it’s a little bland for Michael. It’s weird but not really weird, not jarring and unpredictable like when he morphed into a panther and then back and then smashed a car and what not. And the dancing is good, but does not push beyond what he’s done before.
Still, I have a soft spot for it. It’s Michael’s little part in the black pop culture renaissance of the early ’90s. Michael had famously conquered MTV at a time when they didn’t even play black artists. His record company had to strong arm them to change that. Despite the deep soulfulness of his music and dance, his broad appeal and “Black or White” ambiguity caused some to think he transcended race. I don’t think he saw it that way. When the so-called fad of hip hop had begun to infiltrate R&B and pop through Riley, Michael was quick to get in on it. Likewise, the new ascendancy of black directors in Hollywood.
As a Washington Post article points out, “In 1991, at least 17 black-helmed films opened in theaters, more than in the entire previous decade.” They range from
Melvin Mario Van Peebles’ NEW JACK CITY to Julie Dash’s DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and of course Singleton’s BOYZ. A Sun-Sentinel article from April of that year describes a “new wave of black films” riding the coattails of hits like HOUSE PARTY and DO THE RIGHT THING. “Urban dramas, hip comedies, subtle relationship films, these films are authentic stories from the black experience, written and directed by blacks. They are drawing audiences of all skin colors and making money.”
And that’s pretty much what “Remember the Time” did. Singleton tells a story of black royalty starring a sort of black royalty of the time, in a video not aimed at a specific demographic, but at everyone.
Looking around today, it’s clear that this movement didn’t lead to a paradise of racial harmony. Our country seems even more harshly divided than it did then, and the internet has done the same to our pop culture, virtually erasing the possibility of a shared moment like a new Michael Jackson video that everyone has seen. The sort of optimism and inspirational afrocentrism of this music and video and era couldn’t even exist in pop culture today without us having to suffer through a wave of ignorant complaints from internet commenters and Fox news pundits trained to see blackness as an intrusion on their lives. We are broken in ways that I can’t picture ol’ bleeding heart “Heal the World” Michael even comprehending. It sucks.
So sometimes it’s nice to forget about all that stuff and remember the time.