In Michael’s autobiography, Moonwalk, he recalls an incident when the Jackson 5 were being interviewed, with their answers being scrutinised by Motown coaches sensitive to subjects that could be considered controversial. A black interviewer attempted to garner their views on the civil rights movement, but the Motown public relations representatives refused to let the Jackson 5 respond. Michael remembers how he and his brothers threw up the black power salute as they left the interview.
Michael grew up immersed in the social tumult generated by the assassinations of both Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. His mentor was Stevie Wonder, of whom he said,
“That’s why I love Stevie Wonder’s biggest-selling album called Songs in the Key of Life. He has a song on that album called ‘Black Man’… I just jumped up screaming when I heard that record because he’s showing the world what the black man has done and what other races have done, and he balanced it beautifully by putting other races in there, what they have done. Then he brings out what the black man has done. Instead of naming it another thing, he named it ‘Black Man’. That’s what I loved about it….And that’s the best way to bring about the truth, through song. And that’s what I love about it.”
A sixteen-year-old Michael, in 1974, even performed backing vocals on Stevie Wonder’s anti-Nixon track, ‘You Haven’t Done Nothing’.
In the introduction to the dance sequence of the ‘Black Or White’ video, a background statue of notorious slaver US President George Washington, is poised as if guiding the black panther (which takes a moment to growl at the statue) into the pantheon where it shapeshifts into Michael, who is clad primarily in black – though sporting a white arm brace and a chain belt around his waist.
The ensuing dance in which Michael destroys racist graffiti sprayed on car and shop windows was construed as gratuitously violent by some. This led to Michael having to issue a statement in which he apologised for any upset caused and explained that he had merely been interpreting the instinct of a black panther. The dance sequence is shot in a street illuminated by hues on a spectrum from black to light blue. The black panther is the universally recognised symbol for the liberation of the black race. The official colours for the Black Panther Party (the original peaceful protest incarnation of the group, as opposed to the later militant offshoot), are black and light blue.
After the dance, Michael morphs back into a black panther, whereupon the final shot of the sequence is of the panther poised in an identical representation of the Black Panther Party logo. Michael would later incorporate the tail from this logo into his own ‘MJ’ emblem.
The political message in the ‘Black Or White’ short film is teased from the beginning. We start immersed in a point-of-view shot of some entity soaring through a night sky of black and blue, before it plunges through the clouds into a middle-America suburbia that has white-rock as its soundtrack. The entity seems to be searching for something to possess. It stalls for a double take on one particular house, before inviting itself in.
The perspective then alters to become a standard view. A fat, white American man and his blonde, petite wife sit in the lounge; the man is trying to watch a baseball game, though is evidently irritated by the noise of the loud music emanating from his son’s bedroom upstairs. The man is eventually compelled to stomp upstairs and chastise the boy, demanding he “Turn that noise off!” On his way out, the man slams the door behind him, and a framed poster of Michael with his fist in the air during a Bad tour rendition of ‘Beat It’ falls to the floor with a smash. Out of vengeance, the boy then proceeds to construct an enormous speaker system in the living room. Once assembled, his distracted parents finally notice what their son’s been doing (at which point – just to tantalise the next chapter – is it just me, or does the man commentating on the baseball match in the background really say “Satan”?). Having gotten his father’s attention, the boy exclaims, “Eat this!” and plays a chord on his electric guitar – the noise from which blasts his portly father through the roof, and up into the moonlit black and blue sky. The fat, white man and his armchair then land in sub-Saharan Africa with a thud. Just in time to witness tribesmen hunting down a pack of imperious lions.
The ensuing ‘pop’ segment deconstructs the world’s myriad ethnic dance stereotypes by pulling the camera away and exposing the artifice of each scene. It emphasises the delineation between the cultures of the world, yet simultaneously celebrates the possibilities of unifying the world through the medium of song and dance.
The upbeat melodies in ‘Black Or White’ (bar the bridge in which Michael furiously spits, “I ain’t scared of no sheets” and where, in the short film, Ku Klux Klan imagery is engulfed by the flames he is bursting through (Michael had also incorporated Ku Klux Klan imagery in the video for ‘Man In The Mirror’, three years previously), are deceptive in the same manner that Michael’s first self-penned track, ‘Blues Away’ (1976) also are – in which the lyrics concern heartbreak. The narrative of ‘Black or White’ tells the story of a mixed-race couple being questioned, with the black male protagonist being derogatorily labelled as “boy”.
‘Black Or White’ was not the first time Michael had employed the term “boy” in such a way. The short film for the song ‘Speed Demon’ shows the black-voiced protagonist “heading for the border” before being told to “pull over, boy and get your ticket right” by a white cop. A cop who then instructs Michael that it’s against the rules to dance (but demands an autograph from him anyway).
(As an aside supporting the idea of Michael always striving for precision in his art, it’s interesting to note that the grammatically erroneous lyric from the ‘Black Or White’ rap, “I’ve seen the bright get duller” was corrected for live performances to “I’ve seen the sharp get duller”.)
In response to the controversy evoked by the panther segment, one news anchor mused, “My guess is that it’s Michael’s childlike playfulness that got him into this problem, and his childlike openness that solved it.”
It is a musing that takes on far greater gravitas when considered in the context of what was to happen in the ensuing months.
Michael understood that in order to fight bigotry and prejudice, he had to use his elevated position to capture the minds of children and turn them against the ingrained views of their parents. Which is why “Black Or White” begins with a boy standing up to his father.
The philosopher Friedrich Engels claimed the patriarchal family structure as the basic building block of capitalism: the father as owner, the wife as the means of production, and the offspring as the product. Both the means of production and product were the property of the patriarch. Michael, being black and belonging to the slave class of “the owned”, was daring to steal their most precious of property – their children. As well as also hijacking the hearts of white women.
Another esteemed philosopher, Noam Chomsky, suggests the media’s function is to “…amuse, entertain and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”
Similarly, the film and music critic Armond White described the media as being “the superego of the status quo”.
And this was another factor that generated the inordinate rage directed towards Michael during the 1993 allegations: the feeling that he was undermining the security of the patriarchal system; that he was somehow “stealing” children away from their fathers. Evan Chandler, the father of the 1993 accuser, even admits in his book that he was jealous of his son wanting to spend more time with Michael than him. Evan Chandler was an estranged father insecure in his role, and felt threatened by the possibility of Michael replacing him.
Which is a natural reaction, albeit one borne of the more bestial elements of human nature – as all jealousy is. The more sinister and premeditated part of Evan Chandler’s scheme, however, was the ruthless extortion attempt in which he was content with the idea of annihilating an innocent man. In truth, Michael did indeed steal the children from the orthodox patriarchy, and provided a new, non-patriarchal model; one exemplified by his later becoming both father and mother to his three children. Michael’s reimagining of the family construct is often viewed as pathological, due to its non-conformity. As Michael said, “They don’t understand it so it makes them feel very uncomfortable”.
The traditional “loving family” does not need to be biological. As humanity is becoming more individualised, there is an evident increase in “tailored families” – tailored to maximise the potential for love.
It may have taken twenty-five years for the minutiae of an event witnessed simultaneously by half a billion people – as well countless hundreds of millions since – to start being deciphered (as starkly obvious as they now seem), but with the ‘Black Or White’ short film, Michael further solidified his position as an artistic visionary. It was not merely that Michael had no other option but to convey his messages subtly, due to an awareness of the pitfalls he was doomed to succumb to; it was also that he remained fully cognisant of humanity’s ongoing evolution of consciousness, and thus prepared his art within this context.
Much of Michael’s art will take time to unravel and reveal its true significance; the messages will crystallise over time. The process of change is so often invisible to the naked eye: the weathering of a rock; the growth of a tree. Noticeable catalytic leaps are few and far between.
The distance of hindsight is necessary.