Abstract: Michael Jackson starred in and produced upwards of forty films in a career which showcases many of the most watched short films of all time. The four-minute sequence often perceived to be Bad (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1987) is in fact the epicentre of a much longer narrative. Parodied in Moonwalker (dir. Jerry Kramer, 1988) in the spirit of Bugsy Malone (dir. Alan Parker, 1976), it is nevertheless targeted towards adults. Richard Price’s screenplay was inspired by a 1985 shooting and explores several complex themes. This essay de-constructs Badfor its cinematic significance, discussing its cultural relevance and artistry through a shot-by-shot analysis which interprets the film through mise en scène, cinematography, performances and wider context.
Essay by Elizabeth Amisu, PGCE, MA, editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and author of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife.
Amisu, Elizabeth. “‘Bad (1987)’.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies1, no. 2 (2014). Published electronically 22/7/14. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/bad-1987-2/. Originally published in Writing Eliza(2014). Published electronically 20 July 2014. http://elizabethamisu.com/2014/07/20/bad-1987-genius-the-short-films-of-michael-2/.
The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies asks that you acknowledge The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies as the source of our Content; if you use material from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies online, we request that you link directly to the stable URL provided. If you use our content offline, we ask that you credit the source as follows: “Courtesy of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies.”
By Elizabeth Amisu
‘Where everything is bad
it must be good
to know the worst.’
– F.H. Bradley
Originally written as a duet, the song Badis a rhetorical sling match reminiscent of Beat It (1982) during, which ‘no one wants to be defeated’.2Instead of encouraging the listener to escape from conflict, this composition is an all-out battle between competing voices: ‘Gonna lock you up/Before too long… If you don’t like what I’m saying/Then won’t you slap my face?’ Soaring above the threatened violence is an aspirational theme, ‘they say the sky’s the limit and to me that’s really true… we can change the world tomorrow, this could be a better place’. The clash is resolved through the semantic subversion of the eponymous adjective. Two perspectives merge, challenging the listener to answer a single question: ‘Who’s bad?’3
We are first introduced to Bad(dir. Martin Scorsese, 1987) through an act of digital vandalism. Graffiti is emblazoned on our screen, accompanied by the faux-diegetic sound of spray-paint informing us that the heartbroken boy from She’s Out Of My Life(dir. Bruce Gowers, 1980) and the cinema-going heartthrob from Thriller(dir. John Landis, 1983) have been superseded by someone new.
Bad showcases Jackson’s most compelling performance since his constrained scarecrow in The Wiz.4 He does an uncanny chameleon-act with Daryl, a role which invites the viewer to re-imagine him as though they have never seen him before. Academic, Joe Vogel describes the character as ‘Jackson’s attempt at solidarity’ but the alter-ego is also a conduit, a transference device that creates a world where Jackson, like Clark Kent can don the costume of the everyman, one through which he can showcase his Mortal
Daryl is far closer to the man behind the music than any version previously on film. He is fundamentally quiet, intelligent and amiable. He does not want to fight but finds himself bullied and challenged for simply doing what he loves. His name is derived from D’Arielle, a Norman surname meaning ‘dear one’, ‘beloved’ or ‘little darling’ and its meaning edifies his
When the music rises and the expertly executed Jerome Wise-inspired musical theatre choreography begins, Jackson bursts out of his Daryl-costume. In black and red trousers, metallic boots and highly customised clothing he effectively reveals the gold/red ‘S’ symbol underneath a tie-and-shirt.7Unlike the man of steel, Jackson is simultaneously Clark Kent and Superman, both a shy introvert and an inspiring showman.
The conflict between Daryl (Michael Jackson) and Mini Max (Wesley Snipes) plays out with the audience fully aware that this is drama. Unlike in the decade-later short film, Ghosts (dir. Stan Winston, 1997), at no point will anyone actually be physically hurt so viewers can immerse themselves in the fantasy without fear.8Shot in the Hoyt–Schermerhorn subway station in Brooklyn, New York as well as in and around New York, Bad has the gritty realism of many Scorsese films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver).9 It starts, however, in a place of relative serenity.
Fourteen years before Harry Potter first stepped onto a train that carried him away from his dysfunctional family we see the same concept reversed in Bad. Snow-crested archaic buildings show us the cold, sparse and still somehow warm Duxston School, the epitome of old money. Its church-like rafters cut into empty school corridors while bars of sunlight shine through banisters, not quite eliminating all the shadows. We are in black and white, not only because the narrative is bleak but also because the lines of morality are crystal clear.
The next shot we see is of a face. Shadows cut across the lines of prominent cheekbones as eyes look up into the camera. Make-up artist, Karen Faye’s work results in a flawless complexion, manicured eyebrows and a touch of eyeliner adorn Jackson’s face. He wears a pristine, buttoned-up white shirt that contrasts his jet-black hair. The hoodie over his shirt signifies rebellion over the aristocratic educational establishment. The tight close-up invites the audience to be intimate with a megastar.
The close-up itself is an act of defiance. Much speculation had already been made about Jackson’s face and body in the tabloid media by 1987, a tide that even his tragic passing could not stem.10His Idol Persona was fighting a losing battling with his Wacko Persona which, ironically was mostly born out of a lack of any real news about him at all.11This shot is a blatant declaration of pride in his appearance. I am still beautiful, it boasts, revealing the new cleft in his chin while unveiling the artist for an audience who had not seen him on film since 1985’s We Are The World (dir. Tom Trbovich, 1985).
Speculation on his rapidly lightening skin colour had abounded as Jackson retreated from the vast fame of Thriller and battled to create an album which would eclipse his last one; recovered from severe burns which left him scarred and came to terms with a skin-altering disease. These facts are often overlooked when measuring the level of his genius and invention. His most complex creative works were often born out of extremely difficult personal circumstances.12 From childhood he had been as much product as person and between 1980 and 1987 disease and mishap had irreversibly altered him without his consent. This close-up is also an act of acceptance, or at least an acknowledgement that with the right lighting, make-up and cinematography, he is as beautiful as he ever was.
A gaggle of excited young adults, carrying the ephemera of student life, race down a packed stairwell. Near the back of group is Daryl and when he appears so do the words ‘STARRING MICHAEL JACKSON’. They light up the screen, informing us that the star is an actor playing a character, simultaneously reiterating that this is not a ‘music video’ but a short film with complex narrative.
Visually, Daryl belongs in the world of Duxston. He is soft edges, fair skin, black hair and clean-cut. An African-American boy with books in-hand is also a very positive representation of an ethnic minority.
‘Daryl!’ A shout identifies the character for us while a brief exchange with a friend or teacher who is ‘proud’ and gives him an awkward high-five positions him as a person who cares about his academic life. The part-leather gloves Daryl wears recur throughout the short film. The covering and uncovering of hands, though possibly cosmetic due to Jackson’s skin disorder, also brings to mind the adage, ‘the gloves are coming off’ to mean that a full-force altercation is impending. Riding gloves are a symbol of elegance, a sign of aristocracy. Possibly, this is Daryl’s aim, that through education he might just mobilise himself out of his working class upbringing to an affluent professional life.
In jubilation a huge group of young men exit the shackles of their upper-class school. Daryl, however, is going from safety to conflict, long before Harry Potter did the same. As with the Hogwarts Express, a train transports Daryl through a fade from frolicking fun with his (predominantly Caucasian) friends to a sparse carriage filled with a few, disconcerting ethnic faces. The symmetry of the black leather seats and lines of the ceiling lights join with the lines of the luggage racks to create a prison. Daryl is now alone trapped between the rigid barriers between classes in America.
With the final stop ominous non-diegetic sound erupts over a two-shot of a character looking suspiciously at Daryl. As the passengers leave, Daryl is not really part of their world. The train has transported him from fantasy to reality but he is still a visitor. Once in the subway, graffiti cements his abstraction in a train where even children are lucky to get a seat.
The camera pans right from a sleeping black woman to a host of elderly faces. We are now moving from a world of youthful joy to ageing bleakness. All the life has been sucked out and the faces are joyless. Daryl joins this production line of misery. No one speaks. No one smiles. There is no solidarity here. All are islands, physically close but emotionally distant. Daryl seems intensely uncomfortable until his ominous counterpart breaks the silence.
‘How many guys proud of you?’ This exchange breaks the invisible walls of prejudice between them and reveals the suited man as one who is also aspiring from his lowly origins. They shake hands our preconceived notions of who can be trusted are challenged.
Daryl removes his gloves with his teeth. They are part of the Duxston diegesis and he interacts with them every time he faces conflict. We cut to a new establishing shot of boarded-up tenements with broken, hollowed-out windows like broken teeth. Daryl walks into the frame from the left in a low-angle mid-shot as grey abounds. The first person to address him in his dystopian homeland is a tramp with a string for a belt while other tramps warm themselves over a bin of flames. Welcome to the lair of the disenfranchised.
We follow over Daryl’s shoulder into this new domain until a low-angle shot reveals his dazzling trademark smile.
‘Brother!’ In sunglasses, a lopsided hat and trainers, Mini Max (Wesley Snipes) is the most vocal of Daryl’s trio of home-friends. He jokes with them. ‘I’m home! No school tomorrow!’ However, his joy at being reunited with his friends is tempered instantly. His potential social mobility and upstate school is a dividing line between them.
Daryl’s real home is lit in relatively high-key and two drapes close the space. He walks down an empty corridor, having already had his welcome party. There is no one here. He walks into the space between two drapes which echo the corners he will soon be forced into. His bedroom walls are plastered with images of black stars and musicians, most noticeably Stevie Wonder and Luther Van dross. The irony here is that Jackson is a close friend of Wonder’s. He was even present at the recording sessions for the seminal album, Songs in the Key of Life and the pair duet on the track Just Good Friends from Bad.13
One could even argue that for Jackson, an artist denied the freedoms of an ordinary existence, the character of Daryl is true escape; a retreat into a life that may have been his if he were born, not in Gary, Indiana, the seventh of nine children, but to a single parent family in New York. The camera pans left, showing us what Daryl loves: books, music, the speakers of a sound system. This, in many ways is also the artist himself: a man who modelled his Thriller album on his abiding love of Tchaikovsky and was so well-read that his library boasted ten thousand books, self-educated in a world that neither appreciated nor acknowledged his learning.14
The camera pans, passing over white slatted blinds to a typewriter, on which a note has been placed. The voiceover by Roberta Flack represents an absent mother who has ‘left a sandwich in the fridge’ and is working. Daryl’s disappointment is evident. However, his mini re-creation of Duxston is safe. We follow his gaze in a point-of-view shot through a window to dusty, abandoned houses, zooming in on the words:
‘DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE’.
The slender fingers of Mini Max, using a screwdriver to scrape paint off an unassigned wall show how vandalism simply passes the time for him. The conversation reveals Daryl, seated, trying to explain himself and the topic of Duxston resurfaces. Mini Max, who clearly doesn’t go to school asks, ‘What’s your major?’ To which Daryl replies. ‘It’s high school. There ain’t no majors.’ Mini Max retorts: ‘What’s your minor then?’
Ski and Tip guffaw while Daryl calls Mini Max ‘sick’. Perhaps he is referring to underage girls in a clichéd male dialog. The laughter distils the tension and initial proximal distance is dissolved through a fade. The passing of time has integrated Daryl physically into the group. Mini Max still stands, his power struggle evident.
The discussion of sunglasses and paparazzi is again a nod to Jackson’s celebrity. In the role of Daryl he no longer wears his trademark glasses from the Thriller years and in this short film sheds the need to ‘cover some part of himself’.15As the conversation drifts back to ‘upstate’ and the ‘fancy school’, the tone sours with Daryl positioned in the bottom third of a shot with the least power.
As night approaches we cut to a shot of a drug deal. The film’s score picks pace as we pan sharply to reveal a gang in long-shot including Daryl. The camera zooms in from the long-shot on the dealer who wipes his face and asks, ‘You looking for somebody?’ The camera tilts down to reveal a gun stashed in his belt. We cut to several reaction shots panning from left-to-right as in the subway sequence. Daryl, initially seems concerned but as the camera pans right to left is clearly scared. The group slink off down the street – they have picked an adversary they cannot hope to defeat.
Our next sequence is an altercation between Mini Max and Daryl where the ‘hunt’s up’ and there are victims/prey to devour.
‘What?!’ Daryl replies. The tension which has been building comes to a crescendo.
‘What?!’ Daryl replies. The tension which has been building comes to a crescendo.
‘Homeboy ain’t home! He up in Doonesbury playing tennis with his turtle shells!’ Daryl has covered his pristine white shirt, the evidence of his education, elevated status and of course, his purity. None of these things are permitted.
‘Back off me! Back off!’ Daryl pushes Mini Max away. ‘Stop it!’ ‘Are you bad?’ Mini Max asks. ‘Or is that what they teach you in that sissy school of yours? How to forget who your friends are!’ Mini Max declares an ultimatum, forcing Daryl to declare whether he is ‘down’. Is he part of this hellish dystopia with drug dealers on each corner or another community out of Mini Max’s reach?
This is in fact a question the artist had been forced to confront in the backlash sparked by his skin disorder. Was he still ‘down’? Did he still want to be black? It was a ridiculous question. As if there was ever a choice in the matter. Especially since the public knew him as the little dark-skinned Michael who belted out Rockin Robinwith five, equally dark-skinned brothers; who sang disco tracks like Shake Your Body Down to the Groundin five albums’ worth of songs as part of the Jacksons; who danced as a black man in both Don’t Stop Til You Get Enoughand Thriller. Why would he conceivably, in his mid-twenties decide suddenly to belong to another race altogether? Black rhythms and melody were and had always been at the heart of his musical and physical creations.16
In the mid-eighties there was a cultural panic caused by Jackson’s hereditary skin condition, instigated by a perfect storm of astronomical success and acquired influential power. Was Michael Jackson going to desert the working-class ethnic minority for suburban middle-class affluence? Was he going to subvert the natural order and depose the dominant hierarchies? As a result, would dominant ideologies be radically disrupted? The short film’s social commentary categorically answers these questions through the undeniable power of cinema. At first though, the artist refuses to engage.
‘Leave me alone! Stop messing with me!’ Daryl shouts. ‘I’m tired of y’all messing with me! Stop it!’ Michael Jackson was indeed tired of the tabloid press ‘messing with him’ but they would carry on doing so for two more decades and had he lived, would doubtless have continued to do so.17
As Daryl pushes Wesley Snipes’ tough guy to one side he adds, ‘Get out of my way! Move!’
Before heading through the door (to escape public life entirely) Daryl (Jackson) stops and pauses for a moment. Chiaroscuro surrounds him with shadows and his face is luminescent in the near complete darkness.
‘You want to see who’s bad?’ He turns to the camera and bites off his gloves. Literally and metaphorically, ‘the gloves have come off’. The completely mild-mannered Daryl is gone, now replaced with a tougher, more assertive version who pulls off his jacket, urging the viewer to ‘Come on! Let’s do it! Let’s see who’s bad! Come on!’ But his eyes belie his actions and words. His eyes are afraid.
Fundamentally, it is counter-intuitive for this character to show machismo and alpha-male posturing. His comfort lies in the peace of Duxston School, his solitary room, typewriter and books. He is at home with his Stevie Wonder records and his learning. This is a descent that does not become him.
We are confronted by a steep stair, peering into an abyss. The bowels of a train station are a timeless motif of transformation and similarly, the audience are about to be transported from their mundane living rooms to a world of the superhuman. The camera pans to the right where Daryl stands, rigid against a pillar, flanked by prison-bar gratings. His face half in shadow reveals his purgatory, far from the bright haven of Duxston and creeping ever closer to the underbelly of his dystopia.
A tramp’s arrival cues Daryl’s action and he lifts his hood to cover his face and assume, possibly, the most negative version of himself. The gloves are back on.
As Daryl moves closer to the older man we hear a train go past signalling change, choice and a movement in direction. Mini Max pulls out something that looks like a switchblade. As all three counterparts lean towards their victim, Daryl asks for the most harmless of quarries.
‘Give me a quarter!’
He is simply a distraction so the other three can attack the bait to a defenceless foreigner with poor English skills. Daryl has pulled those Duxston gloves back on and has already picked a side. He becomes the defender of the less fortunate, urging the man to run away.
As the older man makes a swift escape, Mini Max bellows. ‘What are you doing?! You ain’t down with us no more!’ A cry perhaps from a misled public at the ‘Wacko Persona’. ‘You ain’t bad! You ain’t bad!’ The conversation seems finished till Mini Max pushes Daryl hard and reiterates one last time. ‘You ain’t bad!’
Almost unexpectedly Jackson, Daryl and the Mortal Persona who is simultaneously the costume and the actor chorus: ‘You ain’t bad! You ain’t nothing! You ain’t nothing!’ This remark is incredibly emotive. Jackson effectively reclaims his power as an artist. He is declaring that bullies who ridicule are negating and nullifying themselves and those who tear down others are tearing themselves down.
The artist slingshots the word ‘bad’ and swings its negativity back at his accusers. At this precise moment, approximately 7:30 into the short film, Superman reveals himself in a bursting riot of colour reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.18A host of colourful dancers emerge, neutralising the tension and anger in a riot of colour. Jackson descends into shot from hidden bars hooked into the ceiling, performing a superhuman feat of appearing out of thin air.
Jackson, in this sequence, is in so many ways opposite to Daryl: flamboyant, embellished, with relatively big hair, all leather and buckles, oozing style. The sequence is Daryl’s fantasy of being a superhero, a star and escaping his situation by being strong enough to face and defeat his attackers.
We cut to a shot of Jackson’s shoes, boots emblazoned with gold and silver and the sound of heavy breathing. The camera slowly glides around his body, inviting the viewer to take in every buckle, every sinew. This form is, in 1987, world-renowned for its subtle movements, its moonwalk, and its toe-stand. Anticipation builds as the audience are invited to dissect the dancer’s frame, waiting for it to do something beautiful.
In colour, Jackson’s skin has a rich beige tone. He stands between black and white as a person of dual-heritage or no easily identifiable race at all. His face, both his gift and (through its over-representation) his curse, is centre-frame with eyes that are expressionless, vacant apart from a subtle nuance of pain.19All this hurts. Daryl is still inside the mirage. Perhaps Superman is not so super after all, and since he showcases a Christopher Reeves-Hollywood cleft and immaculate hair, one would never know he was horrifically burned just a few short years before. The illusion of Superman, is supposed to be perfect on celluloid and perfection is what the audience sees.
Jackson rolls his sleeves up, Mini Max, unperturbed by the fact that Daryl has just turned into a superhero stares him down. The bursting pressure of a water pipe bellows steam into the air as tension overflows in a sequence of sharply paced shots. As Jackson turns he jingles, the frequency of his movements building. He knows the audience desperately want to see him dance but ever the master of the reveal, he holds. The camera is again tight on his face while breaths chant out the passing seconds. ‘So what’s up?’ Mini Max challenges.
The sequence which follows, known to most as Badis the reply to this question. It begins with Jackson throwing his right hand in the air to the crack of a whip. What follows is a spectacle of balletic grace, gyrations and shouts, during which the multiple dancers edify their centrepiece. They pose mockingly, sliding their feet across the floor.
We cut to a high-angle shot, where Bad’s opening refrain pulls the camera down to Jackson’s perspective, and of course the shot finishes with Jackson in a severe low-angle shot. He has the power. We are now beneath him. Licking his fingers and grabbing his crotch is an invitational challenge, a threat to question his sexuality and virility.
During the set piece perfect unison is employed several times. The cast fall in sync and out again but Jackson’s movements, accentuated by a red stripe down the line of his trousers and several belts and buckles are centre-stage. The closed fists are reminiscent of black power salutes, punching the air instead of another person, symbolising an attack on the abstract nouns, the ‘hatred’, the ‘negativity’ and the ‘racism’ which cannot be seen.
As the cast run through the subway in this Oz-like dream sequence, they race behind grates, leaping over turnstiles, escaping ‘prison bars’ and emerging as free men. The ‘scooting’ forward move, a signature step of Michael Jackson’s from live stage performance was appropriated by choreographer Jeffrey Daniel, who had the idea that the entire troupe should perform it, making it a visual trend. The audience are encouraged to mimic Jackson’s signature steps, joining his unifying rhythm. ‘He [Jackson] took what was formatted as a choreography (sic) and he learned it to the point where he could break out of it when he wanted to and get right back into it without skipping a beat. Michael would just spin and grab himself… we never knew that any of this was going to happen. And that just goes to show you his genius,’ choreographer Gregg Burge explains the electricity of this performance.2
The universality of the ‘altercation theme’ enables this film to cross cultural barriers through its simplicity. ‘What makes one go out and mug a person?’ Burge adds. ‘There’s so much involved in a person who does that. Insecurity, frustration, resentment and all of these things. In one movement I have them lifting the leg up with that feeling of wanting to fly like we all want to do. And the next movement it’s just anger and the next it’s just tenderness.’21
Jerome Robbins’ choreography from West Side Story is also intrinsic to Bad’s visual success. The story is told through dance. The film doesn’t need language. It expresses its sentiments through cinematography and dance.
Jackson’s trademark use of ‘shamone’ comes from soul singer Mavis Staples, an affirmation of African-American culture in what musician, Questlove calls ‘an homage to one of the under-championed soul singers of her day.’22
The first chorus of Bad ends with a 360-degree shot which surrounds Jackson on the lyrics, ‘and the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again.’ Jackson is the world in this moment. He goes around it in musical form, blaring through radios and televisions, music players and speakers. He will overtake it on tour. He is universal, global and this is something both director and star understand implicitly. In the next verse the toe-shuffle again invites the viewer with a change of pace to listen to the words, ‘word is out you’re doin’ wrong/Gonna lock you up before too long.’ We cut directly to Jackson’s finger pointed directly at the camera. ‘Your talk is cheap, you’re not a man/You’re throwing stones to hide your hands.’
His face is luminescent and we are challenged to take a new viewpoint. We are Daryl’s bullies and Michael Jackson’s adversaries. We, the audience. However, we have underestimated him. The cast emerge, racing up well-lit stairs to the words, ‘they say the sky’s the limit and to me that’s really true.’ He runs to a grate, pulls it off and lets in a torrent of fresh air, blowing away prior conceptions. This wind blows his hair and jacket and the dance becomes a joyous explosion of ecstasy.
Although he says he is bad he is now better than ever.
Again, the camera revolves, like a planet orbiting the sun of him and the interlude that follows is a direct homage to the gritty fight-dances of West Side Story.23For the first time in the short film, Jackson is left alone to take centre-stage. As we tilt down the entire station falls into view behind him but there are no more shadows. Only dancers moving ecstatically between pillars in perfect synchronisation, orchestrated by a maestro who doesn’t even need to watch them.
In the vignettes that follow, Scorsese’s mug-shot appears: ‘WANTED FOR SACRILEGE – BAD’. A dancer rips this poster off the wall, reclaiming Scorsese’s right to be both good and bad because he, like Jackson, is an artist. The visual world becomes a series of dancers dressed like average people who, like Daryl (who becomes Michael Jackson), are doing extraordinary things. They are leaping into the air and performing the splits in roller-skates. Again they climb up stairs, emerging from prison-bar-grates, pirouetting and leaping. As Jackson moves into the tracking shot something fundamental has changed.
A score-less chant follows while Jackson asks ‘Who’s bad?’ This ‘break down of a preacher giving a sermon’, Scorsese asserts was Jackson’s idea.24He told the dancers to simply follow him and few of them were singers. This spontaneity shines through the piece. It is rapture. It is the song as worship, as spiritual communion. It is James Brown, an affirmation of soul, an artistic cry to be heard. He has gospel pouring from him and although his skin had been disloyal to him and he can no longer look the same he will always sound like an affirmation of his roots.
The crux of all required ‘blackness’ is in those thirty seconds of Bad, hearkening back to the halcyon days of intense rhythm, syncopation and the negro spiritual chant. It would be no wonder if, over time, these thirty seconds become the most celebrated presentation of the Badshort film and like so many of Jackson’s other works: the panther-dance sequence in Black or White, the extended breakdown in Smooth Criminal, the prison version of They Don’t Care About Us.
Acapella, Jackson’s new song is a speech. It has more force than his spoken voice, more gravity and it emerges like a freight train. He asks his chorus – they reply and he repeats. ‘You’re doing wrong! You know! You know it! Better watch your mouth boy!’ The pejorative term ‘boy’ was often a slur against black men in segregated America. Who is accusing who here? ‘Ask your mother, ask your brother, ask your sister. Ask me!’
Then he raises his wrist while spitting, ‘Shhhhh!’ He points a finger directly at the camera and tells the bullies that it’s time to be quiet. Who are the voices asking if we’re doing wrong? Does Jackson take the perspective of those saying that he is, fuelled by his misrepresentation and is he silencing them through the force of his song, his dance?
A physical altercation follows where Mini Max grabs Daryl (who is retreating from his alter-ego) and slaps away the finger which accuses him of ‘doin wrong’. Both boys lay tense arms on one another. When Daryl lets go of Mini Max, Mini Max lets go of Daryl.
A physical altercation follows where Mini Max grabs Daryl (who is retreating from his alter-ego) and slaps away the finger which accuses him of ‘doin wrong’. Both boys lay tense arms on one another. When Daryl lets go of Mini Max, Mini Max lets go of Daryl.
‘So that’s the way it goes down, right?’ Daryl takes the proffered arm in a show of solidarity and smiles. His assailants walk away without a word, slinking into the shadows. The camera angles round left, again we see Daryl in his jeans, hoodie, and coat in colour for a final moment. Physically, he is alone but whoever those supporters were, they’ve gone. He rapidly transitions into black and white. The shadows re-emerge. The dream sequence is over but he pulls down his hood because he knows who he is. He’s bad because he is good.
We zoom in one last time on Michael Jackson’s international face, his eyes invite us to step out of our mundane disguises and become superheroes as he has done. Alternately, he reminds us that Daryl’s fantasy is not real, that the status quo abounds and in all likelihood Mini Max will win in the end. After all, that is what happened in the dark conclusion of the film’s source material.25The camera freezes on a close-up. Daryl’s future is still not as bright as it should be but he’s intrinsically good. Perhaps that’s all that matters.
Elizabeth Amisu, author of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, holds an MA in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London. She completed her teacher training at the University College London Institute of Education and has seven years’ teaching experience. She is co-founder and editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies online. For ‘The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies she has edited two publications, An Academic Companion to Michael Jackson Studies and Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation – Michael Jackson & Prince;written several articles and book reviews, most notably ”Throwing Stones To Hide Your Hands’: The Mortal Persona Of Michael Jackson‘, which has been translated into Spanish and Italian; ”The Isle is Full of Noises’: Revisiting the Peter Pan of Pop‘, available in German; ”Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s Invincible‘, also in Italian; and ”Heard it Through the Grapevine’: Are We Losing Michael Jackson All Over Again?’, also available in Spanish.
1. All Stills © 1987 Optimum Productions unless otherwise captioned and used for illustrative purposes only.
2. Michael Jackson, Thriller(Liner Notes). MJJ Productions. Epic. 1982.
3. Michael Jackson, Bad(Liner Notes). MJJ Productions. Epic. 1987.
4. The Wiz, dir. Sidney Lumet (Motown Productions, 1978) [on DVD].
5. Superman, dir. Richard Donner (Dovemead/Film Export A.G./International Film Productions, 1978) [on DVD]; Joseph Vogel, Man in the Music, pp. 55, 93, 116-117; Elizabeth Amisu, ‘Throwing Stones To Hide Your Hands: Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson’, 11 June 2014, elizabethamisu.com, <http://elizabethamisu.com/post/88515649217/throwing-stones-to-hide-your-hands-the-mortal-persona> [accessed 16 June 2014] – ‘Jackson’s Mortal Persona is that of a human being who, despite his difficult upbringing and daily pressures, was still a loving father, devoted son, entertainer, philanthropist and humanitarian. Jackson, his friends, and family tried to promote his Mortal Persona and encourage a positive reception of the vulnerable man behind the art but this mostly fell on deaf ears.’
6. Meaning of ‘Daryl’, <http://www.meaning-of-names.com/english-names/daryl.asp> [accessed 18 June 2014]
7. Michael Bush, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson(California: Insight Editions, 2012), pp. 100-101 – ‘He just had an eye for things that work with a little magic added to them.’
8. Jackson, Moonwalk, p. 265 – ‘‘Bad’ is about a kid from the street. It’s about this kid from a bad neighbourhood who gets to go away to a private school. He comes back to the old neighbourhood when he’s on a break from school and the kids from the neighbourhood start giving him trouble. He sings, ‘I’m bad, you’re bad, who’s bad, who’s the best?’ He’s saying when you’re strong and good, then you’re bad.’
9. Bad25(Optimum Productions, 2013) [on DVD]; Goodfellas, dir. Martin Scorsese (Warner Bros, 1990) [on DVD]; Mean Streets, dir. Martin Scorsese (Taplin – Perry – Scorsese Productions, 1973) [on DVD]; Taxi Driver, dir. Martin Scorsese (Bill/Phillips/Italo/Judeo Productions, 1976) [on DVD].
10. ‘Am I the Beast You Visualized? The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson’, The Huffington Post. 2 November, 2011 < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joe-vogel/michael-jackson-trial-_b_1068750.html> [accessed 18 June 2014].
11. Amisu, ‘Throwing Stones’ – ‘The ‘Wacko Jacko’ moniker was coined in 1985, ‘Jacco’ or ‘Jacco Macacco’ is Cockney slang for ‘monkey’. Its continued use can be interpreted as an insult to Jackson’s ethnicity’; Joseph Vogel, ‘How Michael Jackson Made ‘Bad’’, The Atlantic, 10 September 2012, ‘theatlantictimes.com’, <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-michael-jackson-made-bad/262162/2/> [accessed 15 May 2014]; Amisu, ‘Throwing Stones’ – ‘At this stage in his career he was given a superlative Idol Persona whose facets were unrecognisable from the man they signified. In many ways it was at this point that Michael Jackson became a trademark, a simulacrum of a person’; Jeremy Gilbert, ‘The Real Abstraction of Michael Jackson’, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson(ed.) Mark Fisher (O Books, 2009), p. 137-149.
12. Michael Jackson, Moonwalk(Doubleday, 1988), p. 278 – ‘Sometimes when you’re treated unfairly it makes you stronger and more determined.’
13. Jackson,Moonwalk– p. 114; Bad. Michael Jackson. Prod. Quincy Jones. Co-Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 40600 – EK/QET/EM (1987).
14. ‘Jesse Jackson Interviews Michael Jackson’. 27 March 2005 – ‘I said, I’m just going to do a great album, because I love, em, the album Tchaikovsky did, The Nutcracker Suite […]’; Randall Roberts, ‘Michael Jackson’s Lawyer, Bob Sanger, Talks to West Coast Sound About the Pop Star, His Life — and His Reading Habits’. LAWeekly.com, <http://www.laweekly.com/westcoastsound/2009/06/25/michael-jacksons-lawyer-bob-sanger-talks-to-west-coast-sound-about-the-pop-star-his-life-and-his-reading-habits> [accessed 18 June 2014] – ‘We [Sanger and Jackson] talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues. But he was very well read in the classics of psychology and history and literature[…]He loved to read. He had over 10,000 books at his house’; Vogel, Man in the Music, p. 6 – ‘His personal library contained more than 20,000 titles, including biographies, poetry, philosophy, psychology, and history.’
15. Jackson,Moonwalk, p. 272.
16. Jackson,Moonwalk, p. 210.
17. Ishmael Reed, ‘The Persecution of Michael Jackson’, Counter Currents, 29 June 2009.
18. The Wizard of Oz, dir. Victor Fleming (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1939) [on DVD]
19. Syl Mortilla, ‘Michael Jackson’s Face’, SylMortilla.com, 13 June 2013, ‘sylmortilla.com’, <http://sylmortilla.com/2013/06/13/michael-jacksons-face/> [accessed 14 June 2014].
20. Bad 25.
23.West Side Story, dirs. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins (Twentieth Century Fox, 1961) [on DVD].
24. Bad 25.
25. Ebony/Jet Interview with Michael Jackson. November 13, 1987 – [Badis about] ‘this kid who went to school upstate, in the country whatever, who was from the ghetto and he tried to make something of his life and he would leave his old friends behind and when he came back on Spring Break or whatever, Thanksgiving break… his friends, so envious, jealous of him that they killed him but in the film I don’t die of course but it’s a true story we had taken from Time or Newsweek magazine and he’s a black kid like me and it’s a sad story… it’s all negative, it’s wrong. I think that’s life – to want to grow and become more. Like you plant a seed and it grows into something beautiful and it never dies really. I think people should be that way… people don’t look at themselves honestly or point the finger to themselves. It’s always the other guy’s fault. Look at yourself. Make better of yourself.’