i made the above video, documenting my initial feelings around the creation of this docu-drama based on teacher Michael’s life. While my feelings have not changed (i still refuse to see it), after i made the video i began to watch other viewpoints from people who actually have seen it. While there were a wide range of views (from absolutely terrible to absolutely great), they still focused primarily on his ‘private life’. As i observe Michael as a teacher in ways that don’t necessarily reflect his role as an artist/musician/performer; as with most things i began to chart a particularly subconscious class and political analysis in these video overviews.
Michael was indeed, a heavily politicized figure- it’s not something he necessarily wanted (at least from my perspective), but being a man of African descent of such prominence who ALSO could not be placed in a monolithic box, you are automatically going to be politicized. He honored traditional masculinity in many ways (particularly when he was off the clock), but he exceeded performative notions of what ‘being Black’ (or even male) was considered to be. In his performance he defied racial, gender and sexual assumptions. He never particularly tried, but even if he did he also knew that he could never run from his ‘blackness’ because people always placed him in it, based on these same societal norms he chose to defy.
There was a time where i would study Michael every day, and listen to his voice before i went to bed. His voice calmed me in a way- soft yet commanding, his voice was not unlike the many voices leading us to a meditative state. It’s possibly because i identified with his pain as well, coming from similar familial backgrounds. i was so fascinated with how he would miss an ‘s’ or an ‘ed’ at the end of a word, or emphasize particular words in the middle of a sentence, or how sometimes he would go back and forth on a hard ‘r’. Sometimes he’d say run-on sentences when he got excited. It was no different than how anyone i grew up with talked (including myself), but his voice was calming in this way i had never heard, or even recalled, when listening to him growing up. It wasn’t just this: in his simple answers were philosophies very few would get, if they were simply caught in the moment of his celebrity. Even when very young Michael would get questions about defying what was defined as ‘Blackness.’ The biggest moments of subtlety and wisdom (and one of my favorite moments in his interviewing experience) i can recall is when he was interviewed by Diane Collins in 1983.
When Collins states that she “identified” Michael “strictly as a Black musical genius,” who has “much broader appeal than that,” she asks if it was hard to “appeal to black and white audiences at the same time…” Michael stated that he did not write music according to the binary of “color or race”. In my study of Michael i feel that when he made statements such as this, he was extremely misinterpreted. It was clear Collins (and many others) set him into a trap by already limiting what notions of ‘blackness’ were. This is why Michael made a goal to create an album such as Thriller after winning solely R&B-based awards for Off The Wall, so the gatekeepers of the industry could not dictate what his ‘blackness’ (or ‘blackness’ at all) is supposed to represent. To limit a cultural (musical) framework is to leave out the vast artistry of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Etta James, Sugarpie DeSanto, The Isley Brothers, Big Mama Thornton, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddley, Earth Wind & Fire, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Albert Ayler, Patrice Rushen… and even MJ’s contemporary Prince Rogers Nelson, who was doing rock music by his second album. When many others mistook his statements for a desire to negate an awareness of racism (not unlike the ‘new black’ movement we have seen in more recent years), i see them as not observing the larger picture. Being a child under the Motown machine, if Michael was trained to not publicly respond to racism, one largely has Berry Gordy to thank for that. The thing is, Michael never ignored the political and material conditions of African people. He spoke in his book (Moon Walk) about ignoring the Motown rules of apolitical ideology just for a moment, where he and his brothers responded in kind to a ‘Black Fist’ by a reporter during the Jackson 5 days; around this time (in 1974), the brothers went back home, to Senegal. Anyone who goes back home with an open mind (and a lack of colonialist mentality) is going to be changed by their experience there. Over the years, Michael was open with speaking about how he was guided not only by God, but also his connection to what he considered to be the ‘heartbeat’ of civilization. Michael also financially contributed (without fanfare) to building schools, getting much-needed health care provisions, and many other immediate necessities for African youth both in the continent and across the diaspora. Michael was indeed a great mobilizer, but i can only imagine what powerful things he would have done as an organizer.
Michael making music which defied limitations of ‘blackness’ does not define who Michael is/was as a man of African descent. So… When Collins attempts to ‘trap’ him again, insinuating that Michael’s status as a celebrity presents a lack of opportunity to maintain a “‘black’ perspective… not on a musical level but a Michael Jackson private level,” and asking him if “it was hard to look back and remember (his) roots,” Michael pauses, and with a tone that is as irritated as he can be (whilst remaining calm) states, “No. Never hard. All i have to do is look in the mirror. That’s all i have to do, or look at my hands.”
It was very clear (in the pause which proceeded the comment) that Collins was not expecting that response, and it was clear it was not a response she understood. When i first heard it i understood it immediately, and even wrote about it. From my perspective, not only was Michael privately dealing with vitiligo at the time, he was also dealing with trying not to be trapped in a world where people pushed him into particular social roles. Him looking in the mirror was always going to remind him of those strong Jackson/Scruse genes, regardless of how much melanin left his body or how many rhinoplasty procedures he received.
And his hands… i loved his hands tremendously. His hands and eyes were my favorite things about him. Though his feet encountered much more hard labor than his hands, they still appear to have genetically taken on the legacy of his ancestors- somehow the age of his hands seemed to have far surpassed his earthly age. The veins, the age spots, the ripped cuticles, the discolored nails, the occasional puffiness- his hands were an indicator of someone who did suffer from health problems but for some reason i find them beautiful. His eyes… They have seen so much since he was a child, it was as if the creator blessed him with these large, deep brown eyes in order for him to carry all of these experiences with him, to tell stories in the future.
When asked if he would still be performing at age 60, he stated that he would still be an artist in some capacity but would “…probably be doing writing and film, probably directing and stuff like that. Still active but a little more behind the scenes, developing other people and showing them which direction to go in.” When asked if it’s hard not to take himself seriously, he says, “No, it’s pretty easy for me because uh, so many things i block out. I so much see myself like you, or like the people in this room. I’m human just like you are. I’m no better than you are. I maybe have a certain talent, with my art and songwriting and dancing and the drama and the whole thing… the show business thing. But as far as human, I’m just like you. it’s no right for me to think I’m better than you, or have an ego, to walk on airs. there are lots of people in my field who are like that, and most of those people, they, uh, they fall. They really do. they begin to treat people who help them badly, and to forget where they came from, and to forget about those who help them get where they are. that’s real important. That’s why I thank all those… I thank everybody.”
These quotes in particular came to mind when thinking about Searching For Neverland. Watching the trailer as well as various overviews of the film, it was clear that Michael was ready to move on to a different chapter in his life, but was trapped. Mention of Michael bringing hot sauce to the cinema was a significant factor in these video overviews, as a cultural symbol of ‘blackness,’ and proof that he really is, after all, like ‘the rest of us’. We must remember that, although we demand celebrities to perform for us 24/7- or else- they clock in and out… just like the rest of us. Despite Michael’s status he should be allowed a space for humanity. “I so much see myself like you, or like the people in this room. I’m human just like you are. I’m no better than you are.”
It is noted the film does just that- honor his humanity. Hot sauce notwithstanding, from what i can see, it’s done in a way which still places him in a world, separate from the people he so badly wanted to humanly connect with. To honor Michael’s full humanity it’s crucial to recognize his relationship to class, and not just race, or other aspects of culture. He may have earned more money in his lifetime than the majority of us will ever see in our own; but as we can see he was essentially one (or three) paycheck(s) away from losing his assets. Power is going to determine your relationship to the means of production, and though Michael may have owned some publishing he was still vulnerable to working a job he did not want to do for an exploitative company (in order to pay back loans). He struggled to pay back people he owed money to. He had to borrow money just to pay bills. Just like many of us he was set to retire, but was told he had to return to work, in order to make ends meet. He became dependent on painkillers to survive his occupation day to day. He was a twice-divorced man who was a single father to three kids, who found ways to enter the dating scene (and found some challenges there, for obvious reasons).
If we are to truly honor Michael’s humanity (and in turn connect it to our own), respecting his private life (as a father and as a man) is a must. It’s not enough to consistently explore these (relatively unsurprising) narratives about how Michael has maintained his ‘blackness’ or ‘masculinity’ or even how much he struggled with the Jackson family dynamic. It all just feels like ‘reality TV’ to me.
The fact that Conrad Murray was only briefly introduced in the film was something viewers seemed to be worried about, given his relationship to Michael’s physical transition. From what i understand, the producers wanted to focus more on the aspects of Michael’s life (as stated above), as opposed to what we view as the inevitable outcome. i actually do not mind Murray’s brief appearance, as i view him as ultimately being secondary to the narrative behind Michael’s transition. With that, what would have made Searching For Neverland a more compelling story for me (again, connecting a class analysis) was to focus the film on his relationship to AEG Live, his employers. AEG Live and its CEO, Randy Phillips, are the bigger accomplices in Michael’s transition. Recognizing Michael’s financial situation, they took an immediate opportunity to exploit his labor.
On March 5, 2009 Michael Jackson announced his involvement in a residency at the O2 Arena, entitled This Is It. 10 shows were announced. i remember this day, because i stayed up to watch the announcement. Upon watching it i had an ominous feeling, and it was not unlike when he announced the ‘final show’ announcement at Dodgers Stadium on the Victory tour, to the surprise of his brothers. i recall writing about this the day it happened. They even had a ‘ticket lottery’ prior to the general sales, not unlike the Victory tour (with less disastrous results).
Though i was one of the millions of folks who stayed up to get a ticket (and i want to apologize if i had a hand in what ended up happening), i was open about my feelings- i had a feeling he was going to suffer the same fate as one of his teachers, Jackie Wilson, collapsing on stage from a heart attack. As the months pass, we see e mails being circulated, based on concern for Michael’s health. Kenny Ortega noted that he had to feed Michael and cover him up with a blanket because he was always so cold, even in warmer weather. AEG Live had no concern for this, and advised Ortega to keep the production running. Though ‘working’ for Michael, Conrad Murray was also on contract with AEG, and was part of at least one of the e mail chains where Ortega stated his concerns. As long as Michael showed up to the job it did not matter if he was on his last leg. Time is money.
Not only was AEG an employer of Michael Jackson, Thome Thome (a man who was eventually fired) was his representative/business manager, signing off on these AEG deals. i look at him as also being implicated in what i deem as Michael’s murder. Thomas Barrack (who was the CEO of Colony Capital) was introduced to Michael in 2008 by Thome in Las Vegas, under a plan to save Neverland Ranch from foreclosure (the title Searching For Neverland could still work). In order to not lose his non-liquid assets (catalogs, publishing, etc.) he would have to ‘get back to work.’ The Anschutz Entertainment Group (run by Phillip Anschutz, known ‘conservative’ Republican) was contacted, to begin deals. (i should note that Barrack is a political and financial supporter of Donald Trump, but that is another story).
Be it a dancer or a factory worker, working conditions are still sub-par. There are far too many times where we are expected to perform beyond our means, for the profit of someone else. It’s easy to say that Michael put all of this upon himself, and honestly i would not be mad if someone said that. That said, i don’t even know if Michael understood the magnitude of what he was about to face. If performing on a stage was a saving grace for most of your life (in order to escape from something else), you are now at a point where you are behind on bills; your house is ready to be foreclosed on, you have kids to feed and your joints hurt. What you did in order to escape now becomes the job. By that point Michael was open with the fact that he hated touring, and had stated as much since the 80s (at the very least) that he was not fond of it. Understanding Michael’s condition as a worker enables me to make better sense of the situation. And while everyone who knew and/or loved him has a story to tell based on their experiences and perceptions, to me, THIS is the real story of Michael Jackson that has not been told.
Words mean a lot, and the This Is It announcement was his death sentence. To this day, i refuse to watch the film out of respect for the teacher. i have no opposition to others watching it- the film has different significance/sentimental value for whomever watches it; i just personally can’t.