Spike Lee’s Showtime documentary film Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall premiered last Friday. As a diehard, straight out the womb Michael Jackson fan, I got my entire life watching mesmerizing clips and giddy interviews of the man himself, conversations with those who personally knew him and the “witnesses” (as they were labeled in the credits) who were touched by MJ’s indelible body of work. I happily sang along to tunes that will forever bring me joy and gained further insight into the man they called King.
In the documentary, Lee honed in on MJ’s early years and made a conscious decision to focus solely on the music created during that impressionable, history-making time, instead of the myriad controversies and scandals that plagued later portions of Jackson’s solo career. One of those controversies, which sparks conversation almost seven years after the late singer’s death, is Jackson’s changing appearance over the years. Though MJ’s legacy lives in the music he created and shared with the world, it’s almost impossible to mention his name without hearing the widely-held belief that Michael Jackson wanted to look and be White. A belief that has made its way back into discussion due to the casting of Joseph Fiennes to play the pop star in the film, Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon. But I think the answer to his physical transformation lies in a note Jackson wrote to himself, which was shared in the film.
Jackson was only 21 years old when he wrote his future into existence, much like Octavia Butler did, as we recently learned. “MJ will be my new name,” he declared. “No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic] different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or] “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”
One of the things that was painfully obvious throughout the film was that executives, producers, businessmen, and directors alike constantly doubted Jackson. They doubted whether he would have a singing career past childhood, whether he could have an acting career and star in The Wiz (or any other film for that matter), whether he could create his own music and be a solo artist. It’s kind of crazy, considering that he had already proven himself so many times. His talent was undeniable. Jackson combined his innate sensibilities with hard work, passion and an unwavering appreciation for and study of artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers. He combined those influences into a unique style all his own, yet he kept having to prove himself to people who didn’t share or understand his vision.
Jackson, who admittedly was never satisfied, was a complicated, misunderstood genius driven by an impossible quest for perfection. That quest led to a desire to physically reinvent himself with the release of each solo album, from Off The Wall to Invincible, the last album he recorded prior to his 2009 death. Reinvention translated to numerous alterations to his nose, a cleft in his chin, his changing hair, and, yes, lighter skin, though induced by vitiligo. Despite those changes, I don’t think Jackson was seeking to become a different race, that he saw flaws in his blackness, or that he equated whiteness with greatness and perfection. Different was the name of the game. He was striving to both outdo himself and to be in a league all his own. He sought continually to distance himself from his boyhood image, though he longed for the childhood he claimed to have missed. And he wanted to create an identity entirely separate from his brothers.
I recognize that there are so many issues that complicate this reading. The fact that Jackson took in three White children, for example, and that he seemed to have body dysmorphic disorder. He was also rendered untouchable by his exorbitant level of fame, which probably fed into a belief that he could alter his appearance and continue to go about his business without being questioned, like unexplained magic. Born and bred in the shock value era, reinvention was also a way in which Jackson could remain relevant, or rather, talked about in the public eye. Which is sad because the only thing that ever really mattered was the music, but that was overshadowed by his persona.
Of course, all of this conjecture is predicated on a single, handwritten note that seemed to play a crucial role in Michael Jackson’s adult life. But only he knew his innermost thoughts, the real reasons why he changed his physical appearance time and again, and why the changes never seemed to be enough.
Regardless, it’s the music that remains of importance. I am grateful to Spike Lee for creating a film that didn’t succumb to the easy, “But what happened to Michael’s skin?” trap. That’s a different film for a different director entirely. Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall gave us a glimpse into the makings of one of the greatest, most innovative entertainers to ever grace the earth, an enigma and cultural icon whose influence lives on in countless artists and in the hearts of countless fans.