A Brother From Another Planet?
About sixty years ago, Antoine de Saint Exupery created a fantasy in which a Little Prince hopped from planet to planet in his search for happiness. Much more recently, another member of the royal enclave (the king of pop) was engaged in a different kind of meandering: race hopping. From black to white, Michael Jackson not only traveled in his own life, but also in the diegetic world of his video clip “Black or White”. Whereas the Little Prince promised to never forget what he learned from a fox he had domesticated, Michael Jackson seems to have forgotten what every member of the imaginary royalty should know: the tenet that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. “Black or white” opens with an aerial shot of the suburb and home that we will later familiarize with, hence introducing us to the space as coming from the sky. The departure of the hopping and exploration of the diverse worlds that inhabit Planet Earth (as opposed to the diverse planets that compose our universe) is a white middle class suburban home, which sets the norm of our reality. In this home, the father, mother and son seem to have assumed primary psychic roles, which become reversed when the son blasts off his father to the other side of the world. The repressive patriarchal authority, in contrast with the Little Prince, is transported against his will to a world of Otherness. His voyage, in turn, leads the audience to a different double journey: that of the King of Pop walking from frame to frame into stereotypically depicted cultures, and that of Michael’s own real life travel, from blackness to whiteness. This double journey, as the images that compose the video indicate, takes on certain implications about racial difference and its importance in terms of white supremacy.
THE MUSIC VIDEO IN QUESTION:
The representation of a number of diverse racial groups is what makes this video so unique. However, these representations are fraught with a “flawed mimesis” (Stam and Spence 881), stereotypes, and a certain colonial sensibility. In the introduction to his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the presence of a division, “as both geographical and cultural entities […] sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made” (5) By extension, I would like to argue that the video “Black or White” creates several imaginary geographies, adjudicating to each one a stereotypical image that when placed opposite whiteness can be redefined to mean ‘otherness’. This project becomes apparent during the first racial representation, that of the African Natives. The scantily clad men in painted faces are about to kill an animal, responding to their savage and primitive calling. However, out of nowhere, they begin dancing with Michael in a highly choreographed manner. He is within them, trying to blend his difference by yelling a guttural sound, but failing as his western clothing denounces him. Through the attempt to erase difference but by highly stereotyping the natives, the image is then in crisis: the imaginary African continent and its people as a locus of otherness conflicts with the blurring of the distinction with whiteness, because according to his own words “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”.
Enter the eroticized Asian female. These women move in perfect unison, wearing oriental outfits and moving in constrained and very slight movements, as they portray the essence of the truly feminine, “passive, subservient, dependent” (Marchetti 115). The male gaze within the diegetic world not only complicates this representation in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, as these women become highly sexualized racial bodies. As he continues to screen hop, Michael encounters the far West, with its Indians in red face and cowboys that shoot guns without a purpose. Herein lies an invocation to the most racially troublesome genre of American culture: the western. Michael interacts with the Indians like he belongs, and nobody looks at him any different, despite the long withstanding antagonistic relationship between whites and native Americans set up by westerns such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).
Another locus of erasure of racial differences is Michael’s encounter with a traditionally clad Hindu woman, dancing in the middle of the streets of an industrialized India. The imaginary absence of borders manifests itself through the action and setting, as their dancing nonchalance suggest that, contrary to reality, the middle of a well-populated street is removed from dangers.
Many parallels run through these representations of the diverse cultures. Firstly, Michael seems to blend with the ones who accompany him in the frame, even though he leaps out of the screen for the audiences who see him as different. Secondly, he seems to be able to adapt quite well to each race through dance, which suggests his dexterity in the art of bodily adaptation and race hopping. Nevertheless, this argument becomes more complicated when taking into account the last stop on his diegetic culture trip: the Russian white Cossacks. This particular segment is the only one he can complete in its entirety and in perfect unison with his screen partners. This feat suggests perfect harmony with his fellow white dancers, inducting him, according to the video’s discourse, into The ‘Hall of Whiteness’. The white snowflakes falling only add to the sentiment of absence of color that permeates the screen.
Furthermore, as the scene converts into a snow globe, a small hand holds it in its grasp. The camera pulls back to reveal a white baby sitting on top of the world, who right in front of a black infant shakes the snow globe that has captured Michael’s reality. Almost like a justification, these two babies are evocative of the Clark Doll Study, an experiment which asked children to choose between a white and a black doll in terms of their preference. Just as the study reveals, and as Michael represents, whiteness equals desirability. This not-so-novel discovery as a result of white supremacy explains why the snow globe resides on the white baby’s hand, conferring him and agency the black baby cannot have. The white baby is, in this world of binary divisions, the one that gets to hold the globe. The exposure of this experiment almost validates Michael’s escape from blackness, but also endorses the idea of whiteness as the top of the food chain, or literally in this video, as the agent in control on top of the world.
The same can be said about Michael’s trip to the flame of the Statue of Liberty. His positioning on top of one of the tallest structures of the world reinforces his status of privilege as a white male, but also stands as an emblem of the Ellis Island culture, that of the American Dream. In the United States, the land of possibilities, one can become whoever he or she wants to be. America becomes the place of dreams and reinvented identities, a space where most fantasies can become a reality because of that ‘freedom’.
It would seem that only white people are in the privileged position to say that skin color does not matter. “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”, he sings, mainly meaning that the prism by which we should evaluate people is not race, but equality. However, the suggestion of the erasure of color leads us to conjecture that whiteness is the ideal. Michael, occupying his throne near the crown of the Statue of Liberty, asserts this statement through more than his lyrics. His costume choice for this video becomes an interesting one to analyze: a white shirt, paired with black pants. If we were to deconstruct it, we would find that the whiteness of his outfit resides on top of the black, signaling the order of hierarchy of race, but also occupies the top portion of his body, the one valued because of intellect and reason, while the black one covers the bottom half, the portion that contains the genitalia and is often associated with the sexualized and the primitive. We can see this clothing choice as a reflection of cultural stereotypes: the rational and civilized white is above the primitive and hypersexualized black. Being that this is a video to try to disavow racial stereotypes and racial differences, the clothing selection surfaces as a huge oversight, or a fraught choice.
Whereas this video was released to repudiate certain racist accusations towards Michael Jackson, the image tells us a different story. Even though the video promises to challenge ruling discursive assumptions about race, it ends up reaffirming the status quo of white supremacy. The morphing of the faces that ends the musical portion of the video, as well as the transformation of Michael’s face through plastic surgery manipulation seems to suggest that the King of Pop is not looking to join the Little Prince on his quest of returning to the Earth to live happily ever after. Instead, it seems that he has reached the point of no return, and as his hopping from identity to identity progresses, his highly morphed body better suits a space within this galaxy, but out of this world.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House, 1994.
Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism an Representation: An Introduction” in Film: Psychology, Ideology, and Technology. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th Ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004. pp 877-891.