Dec.5 / 2014

PREJUDICE IS IGNORANCE: Revisiting Michael Jackson’s Black or White

The title card that appears at the end of Michael Jackson’s Black or White uncensored video.

The great race debate is nothing new, but between the Michael Brown and Eric Garner stories dominating the media lately, racial tensions are at an all-time high (especially in America). Racism is rightfully at the forefront of our consciousness — I mean how could it not be? No matter how much broadcasters are cutting to the Christmas Tree Lighting in NYC and trying to ignore the footage of protesters surrounding Times Square, they are happening and people are not giving up the fight just yet.

It is happening in music too. There are artists who are vocal like Solange and John Legend; while some are being criticized for being silent. Azealia Banks took to twitter to call out Iggy Azalea for appropriating black culture, but not caring about black people.

But back in 1991, there was someone talking about it and it was Michael Jackson in his video for Black or White. Always a button pusher, his message is still timely and relevant.

John Landis, who previously directed Thriller for Michael, took this one on. The video premiered on television simultaneously in 27 countries, with an audience of 500 million viewers, the most ever for a music video. These days, in the age of YouTube and Vevo, that’s unheard of.

Growing up I loved the video, but I was too young to understand the more complex themes. I knew I loved it and I loved dancing to it. I wanted to hang out with Macaulay Culkin and be like Tyra Banks. The colourful images of cultures around the world, the choreography and the black and white babies sitting on top of the world stuck with me. I even used to practice my morphing in the mirror for hours. CGI was pretty new to music videos and it was awesome but I consumed the song and video with rose-coloured glasses only a kid could have. The message felt right: it doesn’t matter if we are black or white, we are all equal.

As a kid, this concept seemed so simple. This is an ideal way to view the world, but as we grow up we all learn how unjust the world can truly be. One only has to watch the Eric Garner video to know that the idealism of equality and a society without prejudice is heartbreakingly not always the truth. Jon Stewart hit the nail on the head this week when he told his audience: “We are definitely not living in a post-racial society.” The sooner we all acknowledge this, the more power we have to move forward and make a difference. The wonderful thing about art and music is that it can be used to challenge things we can’t always understand how to process emotionally. As Michael Jackson calls out in the lyrics, he is unafraid and defiant of the KKK and states, “I’m not gonna spend my life being a colour.” This is why his music was revolutionary.

When the Black or White video showed up on the Retro 30 this week, it got me thinking about a lot of things. I also didn’t even know an alternate version existed until shooting the countdown this week. Apparently it’s still unavailable to buy on iTunes.

Looking back, this throwback couldn’t be more important. The themes of racial harmony, acceptance, love and equality are needed now more than ever.

My first reaction while watching the uncut version was, “Wow, I’ve never seen Michael so angry.” In most interviews, his persona is filled with an almost childlike innocence, but this video is a stark contrast to that. Through the destruction, rage and his guttural screams, it makes you wonder what was really going on inside that man. The second thing I noticed was the transformation from the black panther (clearly not coincidental). I think any pop star calling out the KKK and Black Panther Party movement is doing something more than trying to sell records and make us dance. Even so, his astounding dancing is still unmatched in any music video of today (especially from the unedited cut).

After many complaints after it first aired, Jackson later apologized for the video saying that “the violent and suggestive behavior was an interpretation of the animal instinct of a black panther.” MTV and other music video networks removed the last four minutes from subsequent broadcasts, but good news: you can watch it below!

There are still many who argue about Michael’s own struggle and acceptance of his own race. Below, he is being confronted in this old interview by Oprah. Michael asserts it all comes down to his vitiligo. No one knew what was going on with Michael. But watching this old interview gives us some insight on how heavily the scrutiny affected him. Go to 23:50 for the good part. He also talks about why he grabs his crotch while dancing, which is seen heavily (and criticized greatly) in the uncut version of Black or White. Michael’s answer? He’s a “slave to the rhythm”.

Despite Michael’s defenses, people still loved to taunt him regarding the race issue. The Black or White video definitely made its mark and parodies popped up all over the place, most famously this one from In Living Colour.

Back in 1991, the video came at a time when the heavy scrutiny Michael was coming under was really just beginning. Whatever you think about Michael, what he was talking about 23 years ago was pretty pioneering in pop music and is still a pressing issue today. I miss Michael’s music, I miss the dancing and I miss messages in music videos. If one thing Michael knew how to do it was to get us talking and any dialogue surrounding racism will only take us to a better place. The first step to change and progress is acknowledgement.

I do wonder what impact a video like this would have if it were released today. In the age where everybody has a voice and censorship seems impossible due to the internet, would he still apologize? Or would he take a stand and defend his art and take on the words that Bart Simpson did at the end of the video and tell us to “Chill out homeboy”?

Stay tuned for the abridged version on this week’s Retro 30 when we go all the way back to 1991 this Sunday at 8E/5P.

By Gaby Henderson